Can You Hear Me Now? Prison Teleconferencing Could Save Thousands

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, accused of murder, rape and arson from a 2007 home invasion that killed a Cheshire woman and her two daughters and captured nationwide attention. Because of the notoriety of the crimes, he's accompanied to every appearance by a special detail of corrections officers and two state troopers.

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, where he participated in the hearing through a two-way video system.

With high fuel prices and tight state budgets, Connecticut and at least 10 other states, including 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 new technology offers a fair alternative to spending millions of dollars moving inmates back and forth to hearings.

"The reason we think that there may be some savings with this is because of the cost of overtime and transport. 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 same month, about 151 inmates used the system to participate in hearings on matters 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 further expansion of teleconferencing.

"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.

Greg Hurley, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, said teleconferencing began cropping up in the mid-1990s across the country. 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."

In Kansas, there's a move to expand teleconferencing considering high energy costs. The state 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.

"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 for telemedicine, where a physician "meets" with an inmate patient via a teleconference. Today, it's used for various court cases, parole hearings and immigration hearings.

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

She said the state embarked on teleconferencing to protect public safety, reducing the need to transport high-risk inmates to and from courts. But with high energy costs, she said the agency is also using more video conferencing for employee meetings and regional training sessions as a way to save money.

Dressed in khaki prison garb, Connecticut inmate Mark Fisher recently "attended" a parole hearing in a nearly empty room at the Osborn Correctional Institution, where he's serving time for robbery and larceny.

Sitting patiently at one end of a long table, he faced a television screen and answered questions from the parole members who were nearly 53 miles away.

"I just want to work and slowly acclimate back into society," Fisher told the board.

Fisher was ultimately granted parole, set for May 6, 2009. But 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'd rather see the parole board members in person too. He said they could have better conversation that way.

"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?"

Norman Pattis, a Bethany, Conn. attorney who handles prisoner rights cases, said he doesn't object to teleconferencing for routine matters, such as status conferences, because it can be convenient for the courts and lawyers. But he understands why some inmates are objecting to teleconferencing if their credibility is on the line, such as at a parole hearing.

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

Pattis said as the world becomes more digitized, there's a "disturbing tendency" of thinking people can be fully understood through technology.

"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."

David Strange, the warden at Osborn Correctional Institution, said he hasn't heard any complaints from inmates about the teleconferencing. That's probably because going to court for a Connecticut inmate can mean a long day that starts at 5 a.m. and can end at 7 p.m., sometimes without even being heard by a judge, he said.

Strange isn't complaining either. He no longer has to hire three correctional officers on overtime to travel with an inmate all day.

"For security concerns and cutting down on overtime costs," he said, "this is a home run."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us