The BOP's Videoconferencing Network: A Cost-Effective Way of Doing Business

Article excerpt

The rapid growth of the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been driving the push to be innovative and explore alternative technologies that allow the agency to use resources more effectively to expand services. In conjunction with the increasing inmate population, an environment characterized by tightening budgetary constraints has made it essential to use this business model to maximize the use of available staff and financial resources. Videoconferencing is one of the solutions enabling the BOP to expand the abilities of its work force and save financial resources.

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The BOP was able to save $8,600 in five days using its new nationwide videoconferencing network. Seven staff members from around the country were able to video-link into the central office and join five other staff members for a three-day video meeting. In doing so, the BOP was able to avoid travel, hotel, car rental and per diem costs that would have been otherwise incurred.

With 70 facilities and more than 80,000 inmates, this is no longer the BOP of 1992. Federal corrections is a growth industry with an inmate population that has more than doubled in just more than 10 years. Within another few years, the BOP will have nearly 120 facilities. This unprecedented growth has, therefore, affected every area of the organization.

Establishing a Network

The BOP has been interested in videoconferencing since the early 1990s. It was during this time that the BOP's Office of Security and Technology began to evaluate video court arraignment as a method to reduce costs while improving institutional security and staff safety. This first system was the size of two large footlockers and cost almost $100,000.

In the mid-1990s, the BOP initiated another videoconferencing evaluation. This pilot of mental competency hearings connected the bureau's psychiatric medical center and the local district federal court. Again, the technology worked well; both the court and the medical center immediately realized the benefits of not having to transport an inmate with mental health issues an hour away to court. The second system was in a large push cart with a television monitor sitting on top, and cost about $45,000.

Between 1996 and 1997, the BOP, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration joined forces to evaluate the effectiveness of videoconferencing for medical purposes. The evaluation quickly proved to be cost-effective and medically beneficial for use across several specialities. An independent evaluation confirmed that telemedicine could deliver quality health care in correctional systems. In 1999, the National Institute of Justice published Telemedicine Can Reduce Correctional Health Care Costs: An Evaluation of a Prison Telemedicine Network by Douglas C. McDonald, a report of a telemedicine evaluation involving several BOP facilities. This study and the subsequent follow-up report, Implementing Telemedicine in Correctional Facilities by Peter L. Nacci, C. Allan Turner, Ronald J. Waldron and Eddie Broyles, on implementation strategies for videoconferencing provided further impetus for the BOP to move forward in establishing a nationwide videoconferencing network.

In early 1999, the bureau approved the implementation of its nationwide Telehealth program, the stated objectives of which were to "provide the necessary telecommunications infrastructure, equipment and training for all Bureau of Prisons institutions to activate, operate and maintain a Telehealth network." Since that time, the BOP has expanded the use of videoconferencing technology with applications to meet the requirements of multiple components or tasks within the organization, including institution disciplinary hearings, judicial proceedings with federal and state courts and some staff training in various disciplines. Initially, all institutions using videoconferencing systems were connected via dial-up digital circuits, either ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) or Switched-56. …