A ground breaking IT project using an IP network to offer video links between courtrooms and prisons is predicted to speed up the justice process and save the prison service millions of pounds.
HM Prison Service will use a £5.3m cash injection from the government's capital modernisation fund for what is thought to be the first and largest customised application of an IP virtual private network in the world.
The service has rejected plans to base the service on ISDN networks after year-long pilots in Manchester and Bristol with video conferencing suppliers BT and Telindus highlighted service quality and cost issues.
The managed service is being delivered by supplier Martin Dawes using video conferencing technology from Sony connected across a dedicated quality of service IP network provided by Cable & Wireless.
Terry McClaren, the video link's implementation manager at the Prison Service, told vnunet.com that the project is progressing well and is on target to hit both time and cost goals.
"When we compared the quality of IP networks over ISDN, it stands head and shoulders above it, and we don't suffer loss of bandwidth because no one is using the network apart from us," he said.
The two-year project will offer video conferencing facilities to 156 magistrates courts and 57 prisons around the country. Already 159 sites have been installed. The project is due to be completed by September this year.
"Our main objectives were to reduce journeys to courts to improve public protection and to address the decency agenda. There were instances of people spending a whole day in courtroom cells for a 10 minute hearing. It's also very expensive," McClaren said.
The prison service estimates that it will be able to slash the number of prisoner journeys to magistrates courts by 60 per cent using the video link system. Delays in getting prisoners to court on time cost a staggering £1m a year in London alone, according to figures from the Bar Council.
"With anything as new and complex as this, we recognised that there were going to be difficulties, so we employed a fairly robust management of this contract and followed the Prince project management methodology reinforced with regular management meetings with the supplier to iron out technical and procedural issues," said McClaren.
The service will cost £5m a year to run, but will save the prison service millions of pounds a year in prisoner transport costs and by reducing delays to the criminal justice system.
An independent assessment of the project conducted by Cambridge University found that eight out of 10 prisoners preferred the video link to court.
But the project has still to gain full support from lawyers, the majority of whom feel that remand prisoners are less likely to get bail using the video link than if they are present in court.
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