BANGOR, Maine — For most of us, connecting with others via video call has become the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic. That change in trend has included the justice system -- and some officials say these adaptations have been positive in a number of ways.
On Tuesday, February 16, Penobscot County Commissioners approved the use of $62,500 (via a bid from Aaron Newcomb Building Construction) to improve video conferencing from the Penobscot County Jail. Sheriff Troy Morton says the jail has had limited video capabilities in the past, but the pandemic has highlighted the need for improvements.
"This jail was built five years after the worldwide web was turned on to the public," Morton explained. "It wasn't made for multimedia rooms like we see today."
Morton says the money will be used to create a better physical space for camera systems and Internet capabilities. It will help wire connections to the first floor area, a task that has proven challenging because of concrete walls; and build three office spaces to provide inmates with more privacy while on a video call. Morton says that has been the one of the main problems the jail has encountered during the pandemic -- people are often passing through, so it's not easy for inmates to have private conversations with their attorney or a mental health evaluator. Morton says right now, there also is not much room to expand.
Despite these challenges, there have been a lot of positives, as well -- which is why Morton says he hopes to see this virtual initiative continue even post-pandemic.
"These are pretty small moves that could actually make a pretty major impact," Morton said excitedly.
Morton says video conferencing helps cases move faster through the system. It means jails don't have to transport people to the court, if they're far away -- and it also helps inmates with access to attorneys and mental health evaluators. Video conferencing is used largely for these purposes -- and for programming and arraignments, as well. During the pandemic, it has meant less exposure for inmates who are living in group settings -- dangerous environments, if an outbreak were to happen.
Dr. April O'Grady is a forensic psychologist who does evaluations for Penobscot County Jail and other jails around the state, usually as a contractor for the state forensic service. She says the shift to video conferencing has allowed her to keep up to date with her work this past year.
"It has been surprisingly successful," O'Grady noted. She says the pandemic has made mental health problems even more significant, which is another reason this type of access has been helpful. She says post-pandemic, she expects to do the majority of her work in person again, since telehealth can present some challenges for mental health -- there can be difficulties with communication, and it can sometimes be more difficult to assess people. There would be cases when the virtual method comes into play, though.
"If you've met with somebody in person, then you just need a short follow-up visit. To be able to do that through video conferencing is just more effective," O'Grady explained.
"There's a lot of good that's coming out of a bad pandemic thing," Morton said.