Montgomery County Jail's legal offerings go from paper to digital

Computers allow for easier study

Monday, March 11, 2013
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— Inmates of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility are a little better off this year than last.

The basics haven’t changed, but since the first of the year prisoners have easier access to legal information.

By law, legal records and general law information must be available to inmates so they can research their cases and plot a defense.

Until recently, those legal documents came in the form of “a room full of hardcover books,” according to Jail Administrator Michael Franco.

Now, thanks to a contract with information/law company LexisNexis, inmates will be able to search that whole room of information with a few keystrokes on the facility’s computers.

Two new desktop computers might not seem like much to someone who is not incarcerated. In recent decades, as the outside world moved from desktops to laptops to smartphones and tablet computers, county prisoners continued to leaf through legal tomes. So for the facility, some new computers packed with law is a huge step forward.

Of course, there’s not just an open computer lab. The facility has just two machines to serve its whole population of roughly 140.

According to a resolution establishing computer use protocols set for approval at the county Board of Supervisors’ next meeting, to gain access, prisoners must put in a request and get on a schedule.

“This is jail,” he said. “It’s all about structure.”

For logistical reasons, the computers are on rolling carts that are wheeled about by request.

“We’re about serving the inmates,” Franco said.

That may be true, but the technology will also save the facility time and money in the long run. The law is constantly changing, necessitating regular updates. In a non-digital world that means painstakingly removing outdated pages from the legal binders and snapping in new ones.

“It was just constant,” he said.

With the new system, a LexisNexis representative just drops by every three months with an external hard drive full of new laws and plugs it in. The service costs the county a little over $4,000 a year, which Franco said is less than the comparable paper service.

Considering the savings and benefit for all parties, it seems the switch could have been made years ago. However, Franco said technology only recently progressed to a point where a digital legal library became practical for his jail.

Older computer systems were more complex and would have been harder to operate.

“We would have needed a standby technician to keep it running and teach inmates to use it,” he said. “This one is just plug and play.”

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