InfoComm: AV Goes to Jail

This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.

Video communication is increasingly common throughout legal systems worldwide. It spans facilities and applications, including video arraignment from jail, virtual visitation in prisons, and remote testimony in courtrooms and judges’ chambers.

But the movement toward using video to solve thorny problems in the legal system, such as obtaining testimony from inmates several jurisdictions away, has its hurdles. Unlike telemedicine or distance learning, applications of video communication that have become increasingly easy to implement in healthcare and education markets, deploying video in courts and prisons — especially in existing facilities — can actually be difficult. As a result, some such implementations have been scuttled.

“There was no secure place in jail where you could marshal people and get them in front of a camera,” says Jay Farbstein, owner of Jay Farbstein & Associates, an architectural firm that specializes in law-enforcement facilities. “Or if there was such a location, it was inconvenient for the defense counsel, who preferably would want to be there in person. There was a whole family of facility-related issues that caused it not to work.”

When it does work, video can have a profound effect on the legal system. Some research suggests that judges rule differently when the accused appears by video rather than in person. For example, one study compared rates of bail for certain offenses before and after implementing video.

“They found that the bail amounts jumped substantially after implementation of video,” Farbstein says. “There’s some speculation about why. It has to do with the judges’ confidence in their ability to evaluate the defendants. We have a lot to learn about how these systems work and the impact they have.”

To be fair, there isn’t much conclusive research about how AV affects legal proceedings. But people agree, poor AV systems can have an adverse effect. And depending on the application, good AV systems must accurately reflect in-person experiences or they, too, can have an adverse effect — which would make them poor systems

“Judges want to see the body, the movement, the mannerisms,” says Dickson Stewart, principal consultant at Electronic Interiors. “If you look back to the old witness box, it was open in front. They wanted to see the defendant twitch.”

That’s because body language is important in law enforcement. But it can be tough for judges and others — despite the benefits of video communication — to get a read on someone when there are flaws in the AV system, such as poor lighting or equipment a layperson can’t operate.

And more so than in any other type of building, AV systems must be thoughtfully integrated into a court house or detention facility. Although it’s shown growing interest in using video, the legal system lags behind, for instance, higher education. Therefore AV consultants and integrators, architects of courts and prisons, and legal professionals must collaborate extensively if they’re to realize the benefits of AV and video communication.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Security and cost savings are two major reasons that many jails and courthouses are implementing video arraignment systems. But occasionally, the motivation is a design mistake. That was the case at a new California jail, which included a tunnel to an adjacent courthouse to facilitate in-person arraignments.

“They undersized the elevators that go from the prisoner-holding area to the courtrooms,” says Farbstein. “So they were forced to reconsider whether they would implement video proceedings for arraignments.”

Regardless of why a court or detention facility considers video communication, it’s important that the AV design doesn’t suffer from similar lack of planning. The AV staff at the U.S. District Court of Arizona typically surveys court reporters, courtroom deputies and judges early in the AV design stage to ensure the system design meets their needs.

“When we’re contemplating a new project, we talk to them way in advance to find out what’s working for them now and what they want to see,’” says Brian Lalley, the AV tech specialist who’s responsible for courtroom technologies at five of the Arizona district’s six facilities. “We get input as early as possible.”

What AV professionals may find when they start talking to the people who work in and build courts and prisons is that they’re less familiar with the technology and its applications than people in other markets who’ve been exposed to modern AV systems longer. “I wish I had a nickel for each time a facility designer said mid-project, ‘I thought all of that stuff was wireless now,’” says Dickson Stewart.

In some cases, planning ahead can be a hard sell. One example is urging the client to put in raceways now to support an application that the architect or AV integrator knows from experience will be added later.

“It is sometimes difficult to have end users invest in infrastructure that may not be used for years,” Stewart says. “I cringe every time the term ‘abandoned conduit’ is used when it has actually been provided for future technologies that were either unknown or unaffordable at the time. When a designer hears an owner claim they will never need to add new technologies, red flags should go up.”

One tip for planning ahead is to identify all of the legal services that involve face-to-face contact. Then look for ways that audio and video could be used instead to achieve the client’s goals, such as reducing costs and increasing security. Religious services, education and drug counseling are three examples of services that typically are provided in person today but not necessarily tomorrow.

“It’s about envisioning what might be possible and ensuring that we have power and conduit in place,” says Bob Schwartz, HOK group vice president and project designer for justice.

It’s also about envisioning what stands in the way of a successful AV design that may span a slew of facilities that are at different stages of technology adoption. Many courts and prisons have started down the path of video communication with one-off systems. Learning what those are is crucial. It’s one thing to propose installing a system that supports remote video testimony; it’s another to deliver a system that’s interoperable with the myriad protocols and end points that might span the various jurisdictions involved.

“Typically, you’re finding correctional centers with telemedicine,” Schwartz says. “So we have to plan for the connections and equipment to go with it.”

When it comes to video visitation, for example, it may be technologically possible to allow a prisoner’s family to engage in a video call from home using Skype and a PC. But Skype and similar technologies might not be viable if they make it difficult or impossible for the prison to monitor those video sessions for inappropriate behavior. Some states strike a middle ground by providing family members with access to video visitation booths at parole and probation facilities. Therefore, when designing those facilities, it’s worth discussing with the client ways to put in the infrastructure now so that it’s easier and less expensive to add video visitation in the future.

Flexibility Amid Rigidity

As in the healthcare market, courts, prisons, and related facilities aren’t easily or inexpensively modified once they’re built. Plus there are always safety considerations that dictate every aspect of a building’s architectural and AV design.

“It’s very difficult to provide raceways and wiring later on,” Schwartz says. “Courtrooms have very high levels of finish, which is expensive, and detention/correction has very hard construction.”

Even so, it’s sometimes possible to design in flexibility for the future. For example, the courtrooms in the Arizona U.S. District Court facilities have raised floors that include 4-foot-by-4 foot panels with hatches to provide access to wiring bundles below.

“We know that the judge’s bench and the courtroom deputy’s bench won’t be moving, but the attorney tables may need to move at some future date,” Lalley says. “We can interchange those [panels] like a puzzle piece and move the furniture around, with the access hatch coming up underneath under wherever the configuration is. We can configure the courtrooms at a future date any way we want with these moveable tiles.”

Notice it’s the Arizona court’s AV guy who has these configurations figured out. Whether it’s wiring or interoperability, AV professionals need to become trusted sources in the construction and renovation of legal facilities.

“Architects are kind of stuck in the middle with all of these video issues,” says Joe Bocchiaro, InfoComm vice president of standards and industry innovations. “You think that you have video arraignment and I think that I have it. But when we go to call each other, we can’t. The architects have gotten frustrated by this.”

Part of the frustration comes from encryption and other security features that law enforcement applications require. “Especially in the government space, the last few years, there have been a lot of proprietary systems, and a lot of that had to do with encryption,” Bocchiaro says. “There were proprietary systems because there weren’t good commercial encryption systems. Now there are.”

To help architects identify those and other AV-related issues so that they don’t become expensive, embarrassing problems later on, InfoComm has begun working with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to develop AV guides and other information for designing courts, correctional facilities, and more.

“We’re about to launch a task force that will help the AIA investigate options and come up with some best practices for the use of video for judicial purposes,” Bocchiaro says. “We expect to expose issues that have broad effects on all audiovisual systems by using judicial video as a case study. Architectural, technological, logistical and human issues are all on the table. AV encompasses all of them.”

Such outreach among associations and their professionals lead to better-integrated AV systems that deliver more precisely what courts (and other clients) actually want. For more information about InfoComm Standards and Industry Innovations, visit