Ga. inmate video-conferencing program saves state money

The prison system has saved nearly $6,000 from January to March since using video-conferencing for inmate hearings


Sandy Hodson
The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Judge J. Wade Padgett emailed the man in charge of the Department of Corrections to ask whether it would be possible to establish a secure, private phone line for attorneys to talk to clients who are in prison.

Sure, the director said, and asked for a favor back: Could the judge help figure out a way to reduce the number of prisoner transports to the state's Superior Courts?

The Superior Court rules allow video conferencing for a number of court proceedings – as long as they are recorded, Padgett said. He volunteered to try it in the Augusta Judicial Circuit. The Corrections Department paid for the necessary computer system and worked with Augusta's IT department to set it up. The offices of the public defender and district attorney jumped on board, Padgett said.

The 35 hearings Padgett held from January through March saved the prison system nearly $6,000. Video-conferencing equipment was set up at two of the state's 34 prisons.

Last year, Corrections Department employees did more than 35,000 prisoner transports for court hearings, said Stan Cooper, the special assistant to department Commissioner Timothy C. Ward. The department estimates 40 to 45 percent of the hearings involving prison inmates could be done by video conference.

The success of Padgett's pilot project has Ward wanting to set up equipment at every prison, Cooper said. It has increased the safety of employees and prisoners and increased efficiency, not to mention the financial savings, he said. It could also help sheriff's departments that are responsible for prisoner transports, Cooper said.

During a 2017 prison transport, two corrections officers were killed as two Baldwin State Prison inmates escaped. Ricky Dubose and Donnie Rowe are now facing death penalty trials in Putnam County.

Locally, in April 2002, a Columbia County sheriff's deputy was shot by a prisoner she had taken to Augusta for a bond hearing. The officer survived. The woman who shot her, Tamika Bumpass, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Padgett said there are talks with the sheriff about holding arraignments for those in local jails by video conference.

Recently in one of the smaller Richmond County Superior Court courtrooms, Padgett conducted 22 arraignments of inmates at Augusta State Medical Prison and Phillips State Prison.

One by one the inmates entered a room at the prison and faced a video camera and screen. Each had a copy of his indictment and the arraignment form to enter a not-guilty plea.

"It sounds like a big deal, but I promise you, it is not," Padgett said to inmate Richard Blue about the arraignment. Blue, who pleaded not guilty to possession of methamphetamine, was worried that he might be moved to another prison and miss a scheduled phone call with his attorney, he told the judge. Kelly Williamson, his attorney, assured him over the video conference that their call was still on.

Now there is a private, secure phone line at every Georgia prison for attorneys to talk to their clients. Attorneys can go to the dedicated phone at the courthouse to talk to their imprisoned clients instead of having to travel hours to talk to a client while dozens of others waited back in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, Padgett said. The regular phone lines at the state prisons are recorded and monitored.

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©2019 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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