(HUTCHINSON, Kan.) — The Reno County Courthouse is 80 years old. The law enforcement center next door, 40. But there's a week old gadget that's safeguarding both buildings.
It is a computer-camera-and-phone combined. An inmate sits in front of a monitor in the holding area. To activate the program, (s)he picks up the phone connected to the computer monitor, and communicates with Judge Joe McCarville -- who has his own microphone and big-screen tv in his courtroom.
"I hope that by using this for the things that we can, " said the Hon. McCarville, "we can free up the officers and make it easier for them on the kind of hearings we have to have with the inmate in person."
Before, officers had to escort each inmate into a courtroom, wait for the proceedings, then walk the inmate back. It could be a short walk down the hall that only lasts minutes, or (if the inmate isn't in the Law Enforcement Center), hours to drive, pick up the inmate, and take him/her back.
And that short walk can take the inmate past a lot of people. As Sheriff Randy Henderson explained, "at 8 or 7:30 in the morning, this (four-and-a-half-hoot) hallway can be packed with 60 or 70 people." Then he gestured down the hall, "and you're running 5 or 6 inmates chained together down this hallway."
Before now, inmates walked past witnesses, potential jurors, and the public. "Little kids being exposed to inmates and jumpsuits with chains going down to the courthouse," said Henderson. "This is the tag office department right down there."
Now this technology can go to five different courtrooms, two jails, and one youth detention center here in Reno County. But there's also a plan to use this technology to talk to inmates more than two hours away - Reno County inmates who are housed in the Ford County Detention Center.
Because of overcrowding, there are 179 reno county inmates in detention centers across the state. This cuts down on transportation costs. But moreso, the Sheriff said "it's simplier, safer, and gives us more flexibility." And he said it makes the courthouse safer.
Video-conferences are only used for things like changing court dates -- nothing that should affect the outcome of a case. Sedgwick, Harvey, and Ford counties have similar technology. Reno County's involves closed circuit televisions, and cost about $60,000. The county used stimulus funds.