Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Trend Headed for Dane Co Jail?

As reported in Georgia, another correctional facility is making access to legal materials through electronic means. Is this trend headed to the Dane County Jail? Currently, Dane County Jail inmates have access to books and photocopies by submitting a written request to the Dane Co Legal Resource Center. DCLRC staff fill the requests and deliver them back to jail staff who distribute the requests to the inmates. Most of the instances where electronic kiosks or computer stations have been installed have been in state prisons or larger city or county jails.

Why not Dane County? 1. Does the Sheriff's Office have enough money to invest in this type of technology? Maybe, if a contract can be negotiated with a legal information vendor, such as Westlaw or Lexis.
2. Does the Sheriff's Office have the staff to train inmates how to use the computers? Maybe, but not likely.
3. Is it feasible for the legal information needs of jail inmates? Possibly. The majority of the requests DCLRC receives are for primary law materials: statutes, admin code sections, case law. These requests are poorly worded and require a bit of creative interpretation to decipher the actual request. Will those requests be interpreted by a computer and yield relevant and useful results to the inmate? With some training, an inmate can learn how to input search queries to achieve useful results. Who should do that training? In state prisons, it's law librarians. In Dane County?

I'm not advocating putting computer kiosks or stations in the Dane County Jail, but if the Sheriff wanted to seriously investigate the costs and staffing involved with such an idea, and the projected outcome of savings in time and money (if any), I would support his efforts. For another look at jail kiosks, see the article in the American Association of Law Libraries, Legal Information Services to the Public newsletter.