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Incarceration takes high-tech turn Web-based videoconferencing at jail helps inmates communicate with those outside

Call them Internet inmates.

A new secure network of Internet-based videoconferencing has been installed in the Niagara County Jail's housing units, allowing attorneys, probation officers and mental health staff quick access to inmates.

The technology is designed to cut travel time to the jail, but as it is expanded, it may also have the benefit of linking inmates with their families and possibly changing some of the behavior that keeps prisoners coming back to jail and can cause their children to follow in their footsteps.

The square gray video kiosk is set on a wall, with inmates using a hand-held receiver for privacy as they talk to a secured screen. It looks like a mix between a odd-looking pay phone and a 1950s version of future videophone technology. But security is of paramount concern, and the jail staff has the capability of monitoring the calls.

"We control the usage," Administrative Capt. Daniel M. Engert said of the videoconferencing system.

All calls are scheduled in advance. An inmate is led into one of six designated video rooms, where calls are patched in to these kiosks. Inmates cannot change the feed or initiate calls, as is commonly done in a Skype-type video chat on a home computer.

Those calling from outside the jail can communicate through an everyday video-equipped computer but must be granted access via password.

"All you need is a laptop, an Internet connection and a [webcam]," Engert said of incoming usage.

The pilot program was installed in December and is set up for professional uses only, such as interviews for presentencing reports by probation officers, mental health screenings, and Drug Court screenings. In the future, the uses are expected to become more personal, opening up the conferencing to defense attorneys and families, who in some cases live out of the area, allowing them to talk to inmates without having to drive to the jail.

"The goal is to turn an inmate around so he's more productive in society, rather than less," Engert said. "Maintaining those relationships throughout his incarceration, particularly at the county level, which is fairly short-term, makes them less hardened when they go back."

"It can be a cycle," Sheriff James R. Voutour said. "I am responsible for housing them here. I am really not responsible for them once they get out, but I feel I have an obligation to do everything I can to make sure they don't come back."

Recidivism rates are nearly 80 percent, Voutour said, and videoconferencing is at least one tool for reducing that number and lowering jail costs.

Voutour said regular family communication makes an inmate think twice about going back into the jail system.

"The goal is to turn an inmate around so they can be of value to society," Voutour said. "We are trying to have fathers take some responsibility with their kids. We are trying to build that bridge."

Voutour said jail officials plan to work with New Jerusalem Church in Niagara Falls to set up a secure location for videoconferencing so families in the city can communicate more frequently.

"Kids grow up getting driven up to the jail and walking up that sidewalk every day," Engert said. "It starts the institutionalization process. It becomes part of their growing up. Videoconferencing is a way to stop that."

"It breaks my heart to see kids getting toted up that sidewalk every day, age 2, 3, 4 years old," Voutour said. "It becomes a way of life for them, coming to the jail."

Engert said that in 2002, the jail attempted to use videoconferencing through closed-circuit technology for court proceedings but that it was unsuccessful.

The new system takes advantage of linking with the Internet and webcams.

But not everyone who can take advantage of the new technology necessarily will. Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante said it is unlikely that this new technology would change any practices of face-to-face meetings in the jail between suspects and his staff.

Violante called it a much better tool for probation officers and said it is even more important for downstate, just north of New York City, where staff members are so busy.

"Frankly, it serves no benefit for prosecutors," Violante said. "Whenever we need to interview someone in the jail, who may eventually be a cooperating defendant against other co-defendants or something, we would never [interview] them in any way except face-to-face."

Engert agreed that resistance is strong in this part of the state to use video technology for standard court proceedings, but he said he hopes that changes.

"We are housing a significant amount of federal prisoners. A lot of their attorneys are from Buffalo, and we've gotten some good feedback from them," Engert said. "This will greatly improve their ability to represent their clients in Niagara County."

"Hopefully, as more users get used to the technology in this one-to-one setting, it will encourage them to use the technology in a broader sense, which will provide a lot more efficiency for the Sheriff's Office, in terms of transport and security issues," Engert said.

Because the new system is a pilot program, Engert said, there are no fees for the kiosks, but the county will have to purchase them if the program goes forward. Each kiosk costs about $3,000. The jail was able to use wiring already in place.

Taxpayer funds will not be used to pay for the kiosks, Engert said, but rather proceeds already being generated by a commissary kiosk, an unrelated system in the prisoner housing area that lets inmates purchase personal items such as hygiene products, sweatshirts and radios.

Voutour said he would like to officially move forward on the permanent installation of the videoconferencing system within the next month.

"It's got to be cost-effective," he said. "If it's not, then it won't go forward."