Magazine article Corrections Forum

Video as an Alternative to Transport

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Video as an Alternative to Transport

Article excerpt

With the price of gas topping $4 a gallon, the cost of transporting inmates to court proceedings pr even doctor's appointments has reached all-time highs. Now, if any time, jail administrators faced with draining budgets may consider converting to video conferencing for arraignments, depositions, visitation, even visits with one's psychiatrist.

Beyond fuel savings, video has subtler benefits. It can lessen the time C.O's spend escorting inmates to lobbies for visitation. It can diminish contraband proliferation, and reduce time spent locking down facilities to find it. It can also help speed arraignments, allowing them to be done within the time parameters required by statute. And it can get an inmate to see a psychiatrist before his prescription lapses, perhaps easing aggressive behavior of a mentally ill offender without his meds.

But the obstacles to video conferencing have always been present too. In regard to quality, is the contact as satisfying or as effective? Are the underlying networks available to get the equipment connected? How much is the cost for start-up? For upkeep?

Making a Case

Barriers of course always accompany a new technology, but sometimes the benefits are strong and return on investment is quick. In this case, we looked at specific ways corrections facilities have saved costs: in transport, in redistributing staff, in psychotropic drugs, and in increasing visits, even as costs to conduct them went down.

"Firing up a sheriff's cruiser is not an inexpensive proposition," says Luke Perry, sales engineer with Cremer Technologies in Milwaukee. It's not only the cost of fuel but transportation is dangerous due to possible breeches in security. Plus, officers are exposed to inmates who may have contagious diseases like T. B, he notes.

Even shepherding inmates through a facility from the housing pod to the front lobby takes lots of manpower-and at a median salary of $35,700 for the average C.O., this can add up in a hurry, he says.

Perry should know. Cremer Technologies, which changed its name this year from Cremer Engineering to better reflect its services, began video installations for visitation in a Wisconsin county jail about 10 years ago when use of video was in its infancy, and is now closing in on installations in 50 sites in 20 states.

Perry has done a basic sample cost analysis for moving inmates between a detention center and a courthouse, estimating the time it will take the jail to get its return on investment. At the sample jail, he has estimated the average number of man hours per month and multiplied it by $20 an hour to get a monthly cost. The following are his figures:

Deputy Hours 16

Average Number of Trips/month 20

Deputy Hours/Month 320

Cost/hour/Deputy $20

Average Labor Cost/Month $6,400

By multiplying the average labor cost per month by 12 months, the yearly transportation cost for labor amounts to $76,800. Perry compares the cost of a video system suitable for such a jail - $56,000, according to his estimate - and points out the number of months it will take to break even is about 8. (Fuel and maintenance prices are not factored in; neither are the manpower and training required to operate the video visitation system.) The payback is quick.

Another slight objection to use of video: Some corrections officials have taken exception with the lack of personal contact video visitation affords. However, due to rising costs, some jails actually must consider scaling back the permitted number of visits per inmate per week. Faced with this reality, video visits may seem a good alternative.

Perry notes that after the installation of video visitation stations the number of visitors who may be processed often increases dramatically. For instance, following the installation of Cremer's Prison Vision system in Waukesha County Detention Center in Wisconsin, the number of visitors increased five-fold from 10,970 total visitors in 2005 to 51,899 in 2006. …

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