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Visitation in absentia: new technology allows inmates to receive visitor without leaving cells.

As long as inmates have received outside visitors, contraband has invariably been smuggled inside facilities. Even when inmates and their visitors were separated by glass walls, drugs were smuggled in, often by inserting a drug-filled straw through the hole where the telephone handset cord entered the wall. Now, a new technology has been developed that permits inmates to visit with family members and friends via video, greatly reducing security and liability concerns. This new and revolutionary technology is called video visitation, and it has begun to significantly affect the design of correctional facilities nationwide.

Video visitation grew out of videoconferencing, a technology developed in the late 1970s and 1980s, and used primarily by the military. Gradually, video communication systems were installed in courthouses for use in arraignment hearings, cutting down on the costs of transporting and handling inmates, while reducing the risks associated with transport. The system also improved the productivity of the entire arraignment process, saving taxpayer dollars and providing timely execution of due process for the accused.

In 1996, the concept of videoconferencing was applied to inmate visitation. Last year, the first video visitation system was installed in the Brevard County Jail in Sharpes, Fla. Shortly thereafter, the St. Lucie County Jail installed the system. Several new jails are being designed to accommodate this technology.

Strollo Architects in Orlando, Fla., is one firm that incorporates the system into every correctional facility it designs. "This is the wave of the future," says Jim Strollo, a principal with the firm. "The cost savings is tremendous, not to mention the increased security."

An Overview

For those unfamiliar with the concept of video visitation, a brief overview is in order. The traditional non-contact visitation method, whereby the inmate and visitor sit across from each other separated by a glass screen, is being replaced by technology that allows the inmate and visitor to communicate via videoconference. Not only does this method of visitation reduce the chance of contraband smuggling, it provides greater security and reduces manpower requirements throughout the course of the visit.

Under the old method, the inmate had to be moved from the housing area to the visitation area, and visitors were screened and supervised as closely as possible. Video visitation cuts down on the time required to transport and screen inmates and visitors, and it allows small children to visit, whereas they were prohibited before. Inmates often prefer the new system, since it allows them more time to visit, though it doesn't allow the visitor to physically see the inmate.

Video visitation also cuts down on staff. Prior to the installation of video visitation, Brevard County Jail was using four staff members to conduct visitation. Today, only one staff member is assigned to that task.

And the use of video-visitation technology significantly reduces the problem of contraband. At Brevard County Jail, correctional staff estimate that the contraband problem has been reduced by 98 percent.

Video-visitation technology can be purchased with inmate welfare funds, and thus, does not impose an added, expense on the institution or the taxpayers who support that institution. Inmate welfare funds are generated by the sale of items in the commissary and telephone revenues, and because visitation is considered an inmate benefit, these funds can be used for this purpose. The cost of installing this type of technology varies according to the number of visitation units to be used by inmates and visitors, the distance between these units, and the type of communicative connection between the two.

However, the video-visitation system being installed at Pottawattamie County Jail in Iowa is estimated to save the county $249,000 in construction, staff time and associated costs.

Remote Visitation

Video-visitation technology involves two basic design concepts. In Brevard County, visitors report to a visitation center, located on the facility's property but outside the perimeter of the facility. This eliminates the need to screen and closely supervise visitors. The visitation center is manned by one officer. The inmate video stations are located in the housing units, which eradicates the movement of the inmate to a visitation area. This external design, in which the visitation center is located outside the actual facility, separates the inmates from their visitors completely, eliminating the need for extensive screening and transportation to the facility.

St. Lucie County opted for an internal design. In this design, existing visitation booths for visitors were modified so that visitors now see a video screen where the inmate once sat, across a barrier. In this system, inmates use visitation stations in other locations within the facility. This design may be used in situations where an existing jail is retrofitted for video visitation, and the space or funds are not available for an external visitation system.

Retrofitting a visitation area for video visitation is fairly easy. A shelf wide enough to hold a television monitor and the network video system is installed on the opposite side of the glass from the inmate or visitor. Most facilities will retrofit the visitor area, rather than the inmate visitation area, as the new system allows inmates to remain in their housing units. Many housing units have areas that can be retrofitted for use by the inmates, in the same manner as the visitor areas.

The most costly aspect of retrofitting a facility is the installation of additional electrical outlets and cable needed to operate the system. The video equipment also can be expensive. However, shelving can be constructed at a minimal cost to the facility, using ordinary plywood and inmate labor.

Additional Advantages

Video-visitation technology supports many other uses, all of which should be considered in the initial design stage. In Brevard County, the visitation center contains a public viewing area, where relatives can observe the initial appearance and arraignment hearings, which are conducted via a connection between the courts and the facility.

"Rollabout" units can be moved within the facility to permit visitation for inmates confined to the medical facility, or unruly inmates the administrator chooses not to allow into the normal inmate visitation area. Private video-visitation areas also may be provided for inmates to use while conferring with their attorneys.

In St. Lucie, the Office of the Public Defender has a unit which permits public defenders to interview clients without actually traveling to the jail and being processed. Private video-visitation areas also allow law enforcement officers to interview informants both discreetly and confidentially. Depositions can be taken by connecting two or more attorneys who have access to remote stations with the inmate. This video deposition can be recorded for later use in court.

The inmate stations may be used for educational purposes as well, including teleconferences for distance learning. Several inmates can participate in an educational program with an instructor connected to the jail system via an Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) telephone connection. ISDN is an international telecommunications device for transmitting voice, video and control data over a digital communications line. These lines are installed by a local telephone company, and make it possible to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world who is connected to the same system, simply by dialing their video identification number.

Parole hearings and other legal proceedings also can be held from remote locations, eliminating travel for the hearing official, or movement of the inmate. The administrators of remote facilities can attend meetings via the system, significantly reducing their travel time and expense.

The Department of Corrections in at least one state is considering the establishment of visitation centers in the population centers of the state, so that visitors can connect with facilities located in remote areas. Inmate welfare funds would pay for this benefit.

And as with all new technologies, new and innovative uses continue to be conceived for the system. They all will have an effect on facility design.

Harry S. Sands Jr. is director of the Alachua County Criminal Justice Service in Gainesville, Fla. Anthony H. Johnson is president of Justice Systems Inc. in Winter Park, Fla., and is a senior judge in the state of Florida.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Architecture, Construction & Design
Author:Sands, Harry S., Jr.; Johnson, Anthony H.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Previous Article:Silence is golden: why noise abatement is important to ensuring a secure prison environment.
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