Even in prisons, technology is changing paradigms

By Eden Estopace - November 3rd, 2011

Families with relatives in prison in Singapore can visit their kin more often now. If face-to-face visits are not always possible, "tele-visits" can always be arranged.

The Singapore Prison Service website said tele-visits "allows visitors to see and talk to an inmate through television via tele-conferencing technology, so that visitors enjoy greater convenience and save on travelling time and costs." These services are not only available at the Prison Link Centre, but also in various centers managed by community partners.

In some parts of India, where prisons are so remote inmates get to see their lawyers only on the day of trial, legal consultations can done remotely through video conferencing, a service they call "tele-justice." In some parts of the world, even a court arraignment is done through video conferencing, specially for high-risk prisoners.

In the US, Puerto Rico and South Korea, videoconferencing technology also allows prisons to consult physicians whenever an inmate is in need of medical attention and care, a service it calls "tele-health."

Tele-visits, tele-justice and tele-health are only some of the innovations being introduced in the criminal justice system in many parts of the world to improve prison care.

Thus, when the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), a global association of corrections and prison professionals, held its 13th AGM and Conference in Singapore recently, it also turned to videoconferencing technology to stream its sessions live to its members all over the world and make the videos available on demand.

Ed Wozniak, Executive Director, ICPA, said that from the perspective of governments, it is always expensive to send people to conferences. However, by streaming the 60 different presentations by world experts during the ICPA conference, the lessons can be spread in a more meaningful way.

The ICPA conference, for one, was attended by around 500 representatives working in prisons and community correctional from 65 jurisdictions all over the word. However, by streaming the 60 different presentations by world experts during the ICPA conference, it can reach more people worldwide.

"The opportunity (for our members) to listen to knowledge experts from all over the world and view the sessions again, is tremendous," he said.

ICPA has partnered with Polycom to provide the technology solutions for live streaming and making the videos available online.

Video conferencing for the justice system

Marc Alexis-Remond, Global Director – Government, Polycom, said that justice systems all the world are facing a lot of challenges, foremost of which is the cost and risk of transporting inmates from remote prisons to the court for trial or to the hospital to seek medical care.

"The way Polycom sees the value of technology is in the area of inmate transfer from prison to court, from prison to hospital, or from prison to a training facility in the case of juvenile inmates," he said, adding that videoconferencing can minimize these transfers and generate savings for the facility.

"There are prisons that do not allow children to visit the jail facility. Video allows inmates to see and talk to their children," he added. "So offering live video brings a lot of value."

Wozniak affirmed that lot of the interests prison professionals have in technology is how it can make processes simple.

"You could be sitting as the judge, I could be sitting as the inmate (in a videoconferencing session). That for me is a much better way of using resources in the criminal justice system. You have access to expertise almost instantly," he said.

More frequent family visits, he added, is also established as one of the factors considered important in an inmate's successful re-integration to society after the prison term. Making available opportunities for greater family interactions via video can be considered an intervention strategy.

"One of the reasons we are coming to Singapore is that in Singapore more than anywhere else there is a community emphasis on better community engagement with the prison service so that people returning to the community are received, better supported, and are more likely to find employment later," he said. "Whereas in many other jurisdictions, that type of return to the community would more likely be a turbulent one for offenders. Therefore, the chances of successful reentry is reduced."

It is also a fact, he said that the number of people in prisons is increasing. In the Philippines, for example, said Remond, there are 1.4 million outstanding cases and the average waiting time for an inmate to get tried in court is 6 years.

"If people have to wait 6 years before they can be trialed, it quickly leads to prison overcrowding where the prison services need to house twice as much as inmates that the prison was built," he said.

More people in prisons also add to the cost maintaining jail facilities and hampers rehabilitation efforts. Understandably, delay in cases and breakdown of basic services lead to more problems.

Remond admits deploying technology solutions to the prison environment entails cost for governments or for private institutions running private prisons. However, he said this represents a one-time investment and should be viewed as something that would generate cost-savings in the long term.

Transporting prisoners from one location to another entails cost, including cost of deploying guards and other personnel to secure the transfers. However, if services such as medical consultations, legal consultations or court trials can be done virtually, it would save effort and cost.

A new generation

Wozniak admits that professionals in the criminal justice system - lawyers, judges, magistrates, court personnel -- are most conservative when it comes to using technology in the operations as high-tech solutions have not been deployed on a massive scale. In fact, a study of ICPA members showed that 50 percent of its members worldwide do not use video or any technology at all today.

"I think this would change because of the need to introduce cost efficiencies in the systems and to streamline budgets. Efficiency will drive change," he said.

Remond sees things the same way as a new generation of magistrates are entering the system. "This is the young generation that have grown up with social networking, video calls on the PC. They work very differently. For them, everything is digitized and they have everything electronically. The way they work will also change, especially as budgets are being cut and governments are more concerned how funds are being spent."

Wozniak said that in the recently concluded ICPA conference, telemedicine was high on people's agenda. "People's view on imprisonment is changing dramatically. A prison would have a hospital or a healthcare center and many are wondering why they need to duplicate these facilities and these are wasteful," he said.

Another element that is being looked into is the use of kiosks in prisons to provide court personnel the capability electronically arrange family visits, trial schedules, legal consultations and even manage supplies or perform administrative functions more effectively.

"But it's true," he added. "There is a change required and everybody has to change."

Publication: eGovernment Innovation Asia

Interviewees: Ed Wozniak (Executive Director for ICPA), Marc-Alexis Remond (Global Director, Government for Polycom)

Date: Oct 3, 2011

Source: http://egovasia.enterpriseinnovation.net//content/even-prisons-technology-changing-paradigms

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