New technology is creating improvements in the corrections field.
During the European International Criminal Justice and Corrections Show in London, several wardens and directors of European correctional institutions attended the meetings that were held. Their questions continually referenced new technologies being implemented in prisons and jails and many were interested in the new movement in U.S. corrections toward video visitation. Their main interests centered on the need for additional avenues through which the family support system and the re-integration of inmates back into the community could be improved during the incarceration period.
Discussion was mostly about the capabilities of the new technologies being implemented in North America, especially that of video visitation system applications. Technologists reviewed how the new video visitation and video arraignment systems provide high-quality audio and video communication among inmates, lawyers, probation officers and loved ones. It was interesting that the biggest concern was the potential to eventually extend the visit back into the home and community. Jail technologists envision this technology connecting from the cell stations to remote visitation centers and eventually the home, providing systems with the potential to keep the inmate integrated in the family. The automated, trademarked Visits from Home (described later) is one such technology and technology providers are wrestling with other ways to implement these concepts. Most conventional practitioners ended their conversation with a comment that Visits from Home would be a welcomed addition to the arsenal of products for which corrections personnel have been asking.
During the past year, there have been similar discussions with corrections personnel throughout North America as well. The re-integration of inmates is of high importance to U.S. corrections, opening the door for technology to become a greater part of the future of correctional systems. It is well-known that a secured communication system for inmates that is not staff intensive must be developed in the United States. The system also must ensure that required constitutional access is provided and inmates are allowed conduit to return to society. Technology exists today that can accomplish the required contact and a secured method of communication from inmates to family and services within the community; is just a matter of using this technology to create such a system.
There are Web-based technologies, such as Visits from Home, currently under design and undergoing testing that will provide a medium for future correctional facility service options. These systems will offer a link between inmates and their families at home using devices such as Web-based home computers connecting to today's digital high-speed visitation systems. These connections will allow the inmate to participate in family decisions from a correctional facility during standard 10- to 20-minute visits several times per week during incarceration. Practitioners have constantly stated that if inmates can have continued family access they will reduce the reliance on their fellow "correction prison family." This could result in a method of reducing the level of inmate recidivism that is seen today.
Technology Five Years Into the Future
Like many correctional practitioners, technologists attempt to predict, develop and implement the future in the corrections field. When funding, designing and building a facility, technologists look at least five years into the future to what will be available when the "doors open."
With new digital technologies moving quickly, technologists are finding ways to potentially modernize the existing correctional process by adding new technology that can increase capabilities and the safety of detention personnel, inmates and the public at large. Closed network technology, such as video visitation, is reducing the internal and external transport of inmates, while increasing inmate access to legal, medical and family contacts. Implementing state-of-the-art video technology can open doors to some other improvements such as remote visitation from visiting centers around the county, state or country. It will soon open other doors to Visits from Home, legal offices and additional remote visitation centers.
Video Visitation in Maricopa County
A concern that the commander of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Organizational Development Division had was that staffing costs were on the rise, accounting for the majority of jail and prison budgets. Inmate populations are increasing throughout the world, and at the same time, staff are asked to do more with less. To address these issues, the sheriff's office sought a system that was cost effective and would reduce staff time handling visitation.
According to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the sheriff's office is currently involved in the largest jail expansion in the history of the United States. When the sheriff's office started on the path to building two maximum-security jails consisting of more than 1 million square feet, a philosophy of security and safety for both staff and inmates was adopted. These two jails, each designed to hold 2,000 inmates, are described as no frills jails with the highest level of security for staff and inmates. Currently, there are three jails in Maricopa County that are automated with video visitation and the fourth jail is under construction. The new jail construction team realized that new technology would rapidly change the correctional environment. The plan was to reduce inmate movement from within the jail, so a search for a secure and stable video visitation platform was undertaken. High standards were set for a system that could be accepted; the sheriff's office required the system to be simple to operate and reduce staff involvement. The system also had to perform without flaws and have the ability to expand into Internet and remote site visitation. The main problem was that this type of system did not exist, so to accomplish these goals, countless visits with vendors and technology providers were required. High standards were required of the system and the design committee was determined not to lower the standards or requirements. What resulted is the largest video visitation system in the world. The system now has been operating for three years and has reduced waiting time for visitors, reduced staffing levels and eliminated visitor-introduced contraband. In addition, no complaints have been received from inmates, lawyers, parole officers or staff.
The ultimate goal of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is to move visitation to in-home family visits within the next two years. This will provide those in custody with the ability to interact with family members in the home and improve security of the correctional institution. The visitation technology also can provide county public defenders and probation officers a way in which they can visit inmates right from their offices. This eliminates "windshield time" to and from the jail facilities, waiting in line and waiting for the inmate to be brought to them.
The high-quality video visitation system has imaging and audio equivalent to a visit through glass with a telephone (35 to 40 frames per second). This new system affords the correctional facility a significant reduction in inmate movement from the cellblock area, while increasing visitation control and movements out of this secured location. The change in one of Maricopa County's 2,000-bed facilities (pre- and post-sentence) is as follows: monthly movements for visitation of 10,000 round trips at a 1.10 hour time each saved more than 11,000 officer hours a month in movements alone. The result of implementing this new technology is more officer time with inmates on corrective methods, which improves the development of a more professional correctional officer and correctional environment. In future designs of county, state and federal facilities, the visitation area will easily be placed in remote, off-site locations throughout the county or state. In the near future, additional visitation via Web and other remote network connections will assist service providers such as legal, psychological, medical, clergy and probation to operate remotely. These connections will better optimize care and services while lowering associated costs and time.
Opening New Doorways For Technology
Recent innovations in digital technologies have opened new doorways that will improve the correctional environment and the re-integration process for inmates and corrections personnel. These technologies provide a method to increase positive incentives for inmates through more face-to-face family visits that could result in a reduction of aggressive inmate situations and will allow staff time to be refocused on correctional programs. The innovation of implementing video visitation technologies is not easy; it takes time, energy and the selection of a long-term technical direction and technology partner. This new technology, though somewhat advanced, is in its infancy. The advent of high-speed digital switching systems in the security and casino markets throughout the world in the late 1990s circumvented the limitations of older PBX (telephone) and LAN-based (PC) technologies. These older technologies are troubled with bandwidth transmission limitations, which cause reduction in image, sound and special recording functions, similar to the problems of tube radio. The multimillion-dollar orders by the casino and security departments opened the doors for technology companies to provide high-quality, high-function, lower-cost digital technology. Many industries directed money into research and development to enter this new market. Multimedia Telesys Inc. focused on converting and expanding the digital systems once used by courts and jails to these new digital technologies being used in security (from one-way camera record and television systems to the bidirectional audio/video with digital recording capabilities). These new program systems started what the corrections field referred to as video visitation or closed network communication within correctional facilities.
Today's new digital video visitation system is affording corrections professionals the opportunity to design a new type of correctional facility and communication system. In the near future, the addition of new functions to video visitation system technology will allow the family and legal professionals to reach into the cell area with less time and difficulty. Technology may soon allow inmates to reintegrate into the community as part of their day-to-day activities, increasing their involvement with loved ones and friends, while receiving rehabilitative services in the correctional facility.
Charles E. Johnson is commander of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Organizational Development Division in Arizona. Thomas H. Hesse has been the chief technology officer for high-tech companies for more than 35 years and for Multimedia Telesys Inc. for the past 10 years.