Printer Friendly

Bringing vision to corrections.

Throughout my 40-plus years in corrections I have been intrigued with technology. It can be a great ally in assisting correctional staff in their responsibilities within institutions and the community. Correctional services have improved immensely through the use of portable radios, personal alarm systems, computers, perimeter security systems, closed-circuit television and electronics that allow sophisticated control rooms in correctional institutions and electronic monitoring for house arrest programs.

An intriguing technology that is beginning to have worldwide application is videoconferencing. The technology available now to corrections and other criminal justice agencies is right out of "Star Trek": We can see and talk to one another from any place around the globe, with video and audio as clear as if we were facing each other. Although the process may seem like magic to most of us, engineers and scientists have labored for years to make it available, easy to operate and, most important, affordable.

Video Communications

In Corrections

In 1978, the National Institute of Corrections awarded a grant to ACA to develop long-distance training and general communications programs in conjunction with the state of Vermont. The grant was titled "Television Assisted Correctional Training," or TACT. It offered correctional systems the opportunity to use the best trainers in the country and to offer long-distance training to staff, particularly those who couldn't travel or take part in national conferences.

The costs of such systems, however, was prohibitive - about $20,000 an hour using microwave technology. Under the leadership of Cornelius Hogan, then corrections director in Vermont, the pilot program developed under the TACT grant demonstrated that interactive televideo training was a breakthrough and in many ways was superior to traditional training in terms of information retention. The pilot program was successful, but because of a change in leadership in Vermont and limited resources, the program was suspended.

We've come a long way from those early days. Today's videoconferencing technology is easy to use, cost-effective and ready for innovative correctional uses.

Solving Problems

With Interactive Video

Although courtroom security has always had problems, the intensity of these problems has increased dramatically in recent years. Some judges in Dallas, Texas, and Fall River, Mass., have had to close courtrooms for lack of security when violent persons threaten lives or when an insufficient number of deputies are present. Sheriff's deputies have been injured or murdered while transporting prisoners to court. Recently, a woman was killed by her husband in the courthouse while awaiting a hearing on custody of their child. A California woman killed an accused child molester on his way into the courthouse. Many correctional officers also have been injured while transporting dangerous offenders to hospitals and clinics, and several times inmates have escaped during the trip from the jail to the courthouse.

We must take precautions to ensure these situations do not happen in our detention centers, institutions or court settings. With the exciting new technology of interactive video, these incidents can be eliminated or at least reduced. Video arraignment or videoconferencing of almost any kind can be conducted efficiently with this new technology.

Criminal justice personnel can use this technology in other problem-causing areas as well. For instance, a child who has been sexually or physically abused need not be in the courtroom to give testimony. He or she can be in a safe room conducive to talking, without having to suffer the trauma of appearing in court.

Expert witnesses can offer testimony via live video transmission without incurring often costly travel expenses. Other witnesses who are fearful of appearing in a courtroom can be questioned without loss of credibility. The new interactive system can be used for bail hearings, bail readjustment hearings and other types of hearings in which the accused is in a detention setting, eliminating the need to bring the individual to the courthouse.

The accused no longer has to sit in a cramped courthouse security cell and wait for hours before being called to the courtroom. He or she can safely remain in the detention center. The right to have a "day in court" need not be violated when the accused can listen and see everything that happens in the courtroom pertaining to the case. Again, the accused is secure and the courtroom is safe.

Another use of this technology pertains to lawyer-inmate interviews. Prosecutors and defense lawyers often spend a great deal of time on visits to the accused in a detention setting. Many lawyers spend several hours in transit just to talk to the accused for a few minutes. Some of the discussions take place in crowded areas of the detention center with less than optimal conditions for privacy. If they conduct these interviews in a courthouse security area, there usually is no privacy of any kind and they have to talk through cell bars over the din of other people. Very little quality discussion can take place in such a setting.

If a defense lawyer or prosecutor has videoconferencing technology available in the office or at the courthouse, he or she can talk to the accused privately while the individual remains in a detention setting private area with no distractions. This type of system eliminates transportation problems for lawyers, sheriffs and security personnel. Instead of spending several hours traveling to and from a jail and having to wait for the accused to be brought to the visitation area, the attorney can spend more time talking and planning with clients.

Using Video Systems

Between 1981 and 1993, more than 50 jurisdictions in the United States installed some form of videoconferencing equipment in their criminal justice programs, particularly for court arraignment. Some of the first counties to begin conducting video court arraignment were Dade County, Fla.; Denver County, Colo.; Oakland County, Mich.; Madison County, Ky.; and Alameda and San Diego counties in California. Judges, prosecutors, defense counsel and correctional officials have noted the following benefits of video court arraignment:

* reduction of court security problems;

* reduction of down-time spent in hearings;

* less travel for prosecutors and defense counsel, leaving more time to spend with the accused;

* less jail space needed at courthouses;

* less time for the accused to be waiting for court appearances;

* clear video record taken and stored through use of a VCR; and

* substantial reductions in travel expenses.

In recent years, videoconferencing has met with several uses other than video arraignment. For example, the NIC has made videoconferencing an adjunct to their training efforts and has installed systems at its training centers in Longmont, Colo., and Washington, D.C. Travel costs are minimized - instructors who previously had to fly from Washington to Longmont, meet with students, spend a night, and return to Washington now can lecture from their Washington office. What once took one or two days now takes only two or three hours. Students, whether in college or the NIC training academy, are able to discuss issues just as they would in a classroom, at a cost that is no more than an average long distance telephone call.

In addition, some jurisdictions are considering using videoconferencing for parole revocation hearings and parole hearings, including the U.S. Parole Commission and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Recent Growth

With its worldwide market estimated to reach more than $7 billion by 1997, videoconferencing is one of today's hottest industries. Advances in technology have accelerated the use of room-based videoconferencing systems using largescreen monitors, and the future holds promise of desktop video work stations and business video phones. In the near future, we probably will have interactive video devices not only in our offices, but in our homes as well.

Videoconferencing is taking hold in industries where it was unheard of just a couple of years ago. Why is the video communications market growing so rapidly? The answer lies in its advantages over telephone, mail and in-person communications. Video is more convenient and less expensive than in-person meetings, which require travel and associated expenses. Unlike audio-only phone calls, video face-to-face communication is instantaneous. Applications include such diverse uses as remote monitoring, teaching and training from a distance, surveillance and video arraignment.

Technological advances also have spurred the growth of video communications. Videoconferencing uses "dial-up" technology, meaning public or private telephone systems can be used to carry the video signal to anyplace reachable by phone. Improved video/audio compression technology, which makes the large video signal "fit" in the tiny phone lines, has resulted in high-quality picture and sound.

Advances in hardware technology have reduced both cost and size of the systems, resulting in portable, inexpensive, room-based videoconferencing. Finally, new international standards are being used to encourage the industry to develop compatible systems, increasing the availability and range of videoconferencing.

What does all this mean for corrections and criminal justice? Videoconferencing reduces travel expenses, time spent traveling and security problems. It allows for an audio/video record to be taken easily for each event. Ultimately, the costs, labor and time saved, coupled with convenience and effectiveness, make video technology a ready partner for our field.

Technical Aspects

Because videoconferencing technology is fairly new, it is helpful to understand some of the basics of video communications. Not many of us are engineers, and it is a complex field entailing television and telephone technology, so this is simply an overview.

Dial-up convenience. Video calls are dialed just like ordinary telephone calls, and videoconferencing systems can operate anywhere phone lines go. Most applications use the public telephone network, where the cost is about $15 per hour for domestic long-distance calls and $150 to $200 per hour for international calls. Companies that lease private telephone networks also can use videoconferencing systems. Interoffice video is possible as well-calls can be placed desk-to-desk through a digital PBX system.

Video and audio compression. One reason video communications is becoming more common is that video and audio compression techniques are finally providing high-quality images and sound. Transmitting the large video/audio signal, the same size as a normal television signal, across phone lines designed to carry the relatively small telephone signal requires compression on the order of 1,000 to 1. Once the signal reaches its destination, it then must be decompressed to provide image and sound.

Engineers have developed a way to shrink and expand the signal using a computer device called a coder-decoder. Each manufacturer has different ways of handling this process, so different levels of perceived quality are possible at the video site.

Video. What reaches us on our televisions these days are high-resolution, high-speed signals, and video compression cannot yet match such quality. Factors affecting image quality include the number of frames per second the system is capable of processing, the resolution or sharpness of the image and the way the system handles motion in each image.

Television signal processing takes place at 30 frames per second. Video processing speed is generally half that, or between 12 to 15 frames per second. Resolution of standard television signals is 625 lines by 525 picture elements (pixels) per line. Video manufacturers allow for a lower resolution in order to increase transmission speed. The lower the resolution, the less information per frame that has to be compressed and decompressed by the coder. But, there is a tradeoff - the lower the resolution, the less sharp the image on your screen. So companies attempt to balance speed and sharpness.

Motion is a critical factor in image quality. The more motion that has to be conveyed, the more images it takes to fully show that motion. This slows down processing.

Various motion-handling techniques have been developed by the leading videoconferencing companies, including discrete cosine transform and motion compensation transform. Both of these techniques work by reducing the amount of information sent through the coder to achieve a moving image on the screen. By estimating what certain elements of each frame will look like, the programs make decisions as to whether those elements are necessary to show the motion. Another technique to speed processing holds the stationary background image in memory, and as an object moves in the foreground, reinstates the background from memory.

High-quality video and audio results from combining these sophisticated techniques into one integrated system. The selection of one system over another is a subjective matter.

Audio. Sound quality is just as important as picture quality for videoconferencing. Achieving high-quality sound can be tricky-people need to be able to move around the room and not worry about acoustics, and to talk back and forth and talk over each other just as they would during an in-person conference.

Three factors combine to achieve high sound quality: it must be full duplex (stereo), it must be free from echoes and feedback, and it must be high fidelity with no clipping of sound at the top or bottom spectrum. In 1991 an echo cancellation technique was introduced to allow the use of an omni-directional microphone and provide full-spectrum fidelity and echo-free audio.

Establishing Standards

The motivation to institute standards in the videoconferencing industry is inter-system compatibility. In a free market, the key to supporting global video growth is the ability to interconnect with any vendor's equipment. Most video manufacturers, however, have developed individual proprietary systems, using their own technology.

Only recently have industry-wide standards been accepted, and with the large base of proprietary systems already installed, these standard systems have some catching up to do. New technology developed after standards implementation, such as executive personal communications systems, work stations and video phones, can take advantage of the groundwork already available in the video industry.


A growing number of corrections departments and court systems already use videoconferencing as an integral part of their communications portfolio. Although videoconferencing commonly pays for itself by reducing travel costs, experience shows that its real value lies in increased productivity. Most people report a full return on capital costs within 12 months of purchase of their systems. Equipment costs are dropping dramatically. Advances in technology and manufacturing have allowed prices to halve every two years since 1986.

Multimedia Desktop Systems

Advances in the video industry may make desktop videoconferencing possible in the near future, complementing the room-based systems now available. Often called multimedia systems, the desktop systems will provide live video applications integrated with PC applications such as graphics, documents and stored video. These collaborative work stations have many possibilities. Business spreadsheets, for example, could be worked on simultaneously by staff in different locations. Production companies could show television advertisements to clients in other countries, for the cost and time it takes to make a telephone call.

There are some hurdles to jump, however, on the road to full multimedia desktop systems. For example, sending real-time video over local area networks presents a troublesome dilemma because these networks typically lack the speed to transmit both data and full motion video at the same time, as does integrating the different standards of stored video with live video.

The main difficulty with current video technology is in maintaining compatibility across various product lines, specifically between group and desktop systems. Several companies have introduced prototype products that do not interact with other systems. Even when systems are compatible, the video quality generated at the desktop on a small-screen computer does not always produce acceptable quality when shown on a 25-inch room-based monitor.

Slightly further in the industry's future are stand-alone business video phones. These devices will provide - like their work station counterparts - high-quality audio and full-color, full-motion video, while supporting a full range of peripherals including fax, graphics and document handling capabilities. Business video phones, however, face the same compatibility requirements as video work stations and are not as far along in development.

The fastest growth in the market is expected to be in the business world. The driving force for this growth lies in the benefits that videoconferencing provides - savings in travel costs and user time, and increased productivity and business efficiency. However, with federal, state and local government budgets constantly under attack to reduce costs, all leaders, particularly those in criminal justice agencies, should take a look at this new method of communication that is becoming ever more user-friendly and inexpensive.

As videoconferencing systems continue to evolve onto the desktop and into the home, this technology promises to be as common as the telephone in the future. By the year 2000, videoconferencing will likely be just another routine business communication tool.

Anthony P. Travisono was executive director of ACA from 1974 to 1991. He is currently director of the International Institute for Correctional Studies at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:role of video communications
Author:Travisono, Anthony P.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:South Carolina victim advocate helps address families' concerns.
Next Article:Nine steps to a successful prison construction project.

Related Articles
Making offenders more accountable and offering opportunity for change.
Jail uses video communications to speed up court proceedings.
Justice videoconferencing: a technology whose time has come.
Shingwauk's vision: a history of native residential schools.
Vision Statement.
An interview with ICCA's president.
The rise of technology committees in corrections.
New technology is creating improvements in the corrections field.
The journey through collaboration.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters