Video hearings at Westmoreland County Prison to expand

County commissioners on approved spending $11,000 from the federal county relief block grant for video conferencing equipment for two new rooms at the jail


By Renatta Signorini
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. — Video conferencing capabilities will be added at the Westmoreland County Prison as hearings conducted by video from the jail are increasing in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Warden John Walton said two corrections officer positions have been added to handle those duties.

“We continue to do a tremendous amount of video hearings,” he said.

Court officials lobbied the prison board last month to add equipment to increase the number of hearings conducted remotely to ensure the safety of defendants and court personnel amid the pandemic. Common Pleas and district court judges have been using conferencing software to connect with inmates at the Hempfield jail for the hearings, but court officials said the numbers need to be increased.

The Westmoreland County commissioners on Monday approved spending $11,000 from the federal county relief block grant for video conferencing equipment for two new rooms at the jail. The funding is from a pool of money earmarked to repay local governments for costs associated with the pandemic.

That will make four rooms that can be used for video hearings. Walton said 220 bench warrants and 251 district court hearings were conducted by video from the jail in August. In the first eight months of 2020, there have been 3,266 video hearings with inmates, he said.

The jail had been doing video hearings prior to the pandemic, but Walton said they’ve doubled this year. Courts in June restarted in-person court appearances, but many hearings involving incarcerated defendants are conducted remotely.

The upgrades will add soundproof rooms and increase sound quality, Walton said. Certain types of hearings must be conducted within a specific time frame and adding more video units will allow judges to meet those deadlines, he said.

“We’re just trying to make it easier for them to be able to do their hearings,” he said.

Each of the courthouse’s 11 courtrooms are getting about $210,000 in video and audio upgrades this year.

©2020 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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