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Prisons use teleconferencing to save money

Although some inmates say they'd prefer to plead their cases in
/ Source: The Associated Press

It costs the state of Connecticut at least $1,600 every time multiple murder suspect Joshua Komisarjevsky appears in a courtroom.

Despite his slight build and boyish appearance, Komisarjevsky is classified as a high security inmate, facing charges of murder, rape and arson from a 2007 home invasion in which a woman and her two daughters were killed in Cheshire.

At every court appearance, a special detail of corrections officers and two state troopers are assigned to accompany him.

So, when Komisarjevsky was due in family court earlier this year on an unrelated matter, prison officials opted for a teleconference. Instead an expensive trip to the courthouse, officers escorted Komisarjevsky down the hall from his cell at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, to a room where he participated in the hearing via two-way video.

Used to improve public safety and save cash
With high fuel prices and tight state budgets, Connecticut and at least 10 other states — Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee — report using teleconferences between judges and inmates more often to improve public safety and save some cash.

Although some inmates say they'd prefer to plead their cases in person, correction officials believe the technology offers a fair alternative to spending millions of dollars moving inmates in person.

"It's vehicles, it's gasoline, it's maintenance of those vehicles, it's the driver plus another officer for security purposes," said Connecticut Corrections Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz. "It's all the work that is involved in taking an inmate out of a facility, putting them in a secure vehicle, transporting them to another location."

On Oct. 1, Connecticut finished installing teleconferencing equipment in all of its 18 correctional facilities. During that month, about 151 inmates used the system to participate in hearings involving parole, civil and family court, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Social Security Administration.

The state's court system has a working group looking at expanding the technique.

"As the economy worsens, we're all going to have to be a little more creative in how we handle these things," said Judge Patrick Carroll, the deputy chief court administrator in Connecticut.

More prisons and courts embrace technology
Greg Hurley, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, said teleconferencing began cropping up in the mid-1990s. As the equipment has improved, more state prisons and courts have embraced the technology.

"Most states now are using it more for initial arraignments. It really cuts down on the transportation costs, hauling people from jails, back and forth, to set bonds," he said. "It's one of the things that people were hesitant about when it started. Once the technology was figured out, it was pretty seamless."

Kansas also is moving toward expanding teleconferencing. It already uses the technology for parole hearings and internal disciplinary matters. For a state encompassing more than 82,000 square miles, Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell said officials believe it's a way to save both time and fuel.

Teleconferencing used for other reasons
"If there's a way we can limit a 350-mile drive for a three-hour discussion with six or seven or eight inmates, we're going to try to do that," he said.

Pennsylvania has been using teleconferencing since the mid-1990s. Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the state prison system, said it was originally used to let inmate patients meet with a doctor. Today, it's used for court cases, parole hearings and immigration hearings.

"We have video conference coordinators at each facility," said McNaughton, referring to the state's 27 prisons. "It's practically a full-time job when you think about all the hearings inmates are involved in."

She said the agency also uses video conferencing for employee meetings and regional training sessions.

Some would rather interact face to face
Connecticut inmate Mark Fisher recently "attended" a parole hearing from a room at the Osborn Correctional Institution, where he's serving time for robbery and larceny.

Sitting at one end of a table, he faced a television monitor and answered questions from parole board members who were more than 50 miles away.

Fisher was ultimately granted parole, set for May 6, 2009. Afterward, he said it felt odd to plead his case to a TV set.

"I would much rather interact face to face," he said.

Marlon Brown, a Connecticut inmate serving time for robbery, said he also would rather communicate in person with the parole board members.

"It makes no sense," he said of the teleconferencing. "It messes with one's life. If they're thinking about saving money, I understand. But what about people's lives?"

Attorney Norman Pattis, who handles prisoner rights cases, said he doesn't object to teleconferencing for routine matters because it can be convenient for the courts and lawyers. But he understands why some inmates object to it when their credibility is on the line, such as at parole hearings.

"I wouldn't propose to a woman that I've only met over the phone," said Pattis, of Bethany.

"If my life is on the line or my liberties are on the line, I want to be present," he said. "I don't want to phone it in."