Maryland prisons try inmate video conferencing

Maryland correctional officials hope to trim costs from their transportation budget by installing a teleconferencing system that would allow inmates to make court appearances and doctor visits without leaving the prison.

Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the project would also improve public safety by reducing the number of inmates who are driven from prisons to courthouses or hospitals.

"Any time you put officers and an inmate in a van, things can happen," Maynard said.

The teleconferencing program would set up a television feed between the prison and a hospital or courthouse, Maynard said.

The inmate, for example, would describe his or her ailment to a doctor on the other end. Afterward, the doctor would confer with prison officials to determine the best treatment.

Mark A. Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the prison system is piloting a teleconferencing program with doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The doctors are discussing HIV treatment for inmates, Vernarelli said, but officials hope to expand the concept to cover other medical conditions.

"We've made huge strides in helping inmates control chronic conditions, such as diabetes and HIV. We manage these conditions closely, which in the long run saves taxpayer money because we will hope to spend less money on sick inmates [and] hospital trips," Vernarelli said in an e-mail. "The video conferencing link we're exploring would allow doctors at a major Baltimore hospital to consult on certain inmate medical cases. So, yes, video linking might one day soon be very helpful not only to reduce court trips, but maybe hospital trips as well."

Vernarelli said officials started using the teleconferencing system Friday in Allegany County to hear inmate grievances. Of the 2,800 grievances filed every year, up to 400 make it to court, he said. Those cases require the inmates to be physically present in the courtroom.

"This means that for [Inmate Grievance Office] cases alone, as many as 400 round trips to and from court are made statewide annually," Vernarelli said. "I can't tell you exactly what the savings will be, but consider this: Each court case takes two officers several hours at a minimum. … This is a brand-new system, and we must give it some time. But if it works, and the courts are happy with it, we could see it expanding to other court-related proceedings — short of the actual trial itself — where witnesses or evidence must be presented in person."

If everything goes well, Vernarelli said, the program could be adopted by the Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown.

"Another potential use of video-conferencing equipment could be for 'video visiting booths' in a central location, where loved ones who can't afford the cost or logistical difficulty of a trip three hours away could still be able to visit an inmate," Vernarelli said. "Again, this would be way down the road, and we first have to see how this pilot works."

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