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High-tech prisons: latest technologies drive cost savings and staff efficiencies.

Compared with five years ago, emerging prison technologies are not only better and more reliable, they are cheaper. Innovations such as touch-screen access control, nonlethal fencing and digital video offer substantial savings in staffing costs and operations. Fewer escapes and drastic reductions in contraband are difficult to quantify but contribute to overall safety and lower liability.


During the past 25 years, widespread use of technology in correctional facilities has not been the norm. In the early 1980s, prisons and jails may have employed a smattering of cameras, but it was rare for facilities to be technology-driven. That all changed in the mid to late 1990s. Cameras, for instance, became significantly less costly and maintenance also became less of an issue. In fact, during the past five to eight years, the price of video systems has come down as much as 40 percent due to decreases in cost of hardware. A 1,000-bed system that once cost $750,000 may now cost less than $500,000.

At the same time, digital video recording capabilities have grown rapidly; the latest recorders can store more information in less space and for less money. While the cost of digital has not reached parity with analog, it is likely to offer more for less than analog in the next few years. Digital video is just gaining its footing in corrections applications, and its advantages are clear. Formerly, correctional staff had to change a videotape every few hours, but storage capacity on optical discs has gone from hours to days. In the past, video cameras cycled, omitting frames. Optical discs record continuously, providing a more complete record. Image data are also more stable and easier to survey. One person can monitor 16 images at once on a large split screen. Miniaturization has also aided in the ability to hide the lenses, thus protecting the facility's investment and serving as unobtrusively as possible to glean information.

Illinois Department of Corrections And Video Surveillance

Continuously recording inmate visitations has proved invaluable to the Illinois Department of Corrections. When visitors or offenders are caught with contraband following a visit, a quick rewind or track scan provides evidence of the occurrence and smooths over potential legalities. Several adult facilities in the Illinois system are equipped with a full contingent of digital equipment. However, it seems that facilities initially fall into the trap of desiring an overabundance of cameras, upwards of perhaps 100 in a single medium-sized facility. But having so many cameras can be an extravagance. This may translate into technology overload. If a facility has too many cameras, who will monitor them all? In the authors' experience, it is typically the case that only half the number of cameras initially requested is adequate.

In another instance, cameras in Sangamon County Juvenile Facility in Illinois were installed when the new facility opened two years ago to allow juveniles to experience a bit of free reign and to reduce the number of staff. In new construction, construction costs seem to be the biggest, but when life-cycle costs are taken into consideration, the real cost is staff. Reducing two or three staff positions and their relief can potentially reduce as many as five positions around the clock, which makes quite an impact. Because one of Sangamon's top goals was to reduce staff (not during daytime hours but during the other two shifts), camera installation was quite intensive. Also, juveniles tend to be more emotional and prone to suicide; therefore, more cameras were needed to keep detainees safe, especially in suicide watch rooms, which are more abundant in juvenile facilities compared with adult facilities.

In typical adult facilities, public areas such as cafeterias, corridors and recreaction yards where inmates from different cell houses may be passing through are the most crucial. On the other hand, areas such as cells and shower areas, which must contend with inmate privacy issues, may not need coverage, particularly if assault issues do not currently exist. Cameras may also be used to document areas that contain or store anything of value such as kitchens and commissary, helping to eliminate one of the biggest causes of violence, contraband.

Of course, cameras do have limitations. Inmates often seem to find a way to form a human shield with gang compatriots so that action is behind a wall of backs. It is important to incorporate good design strategy into the construction of a facility to provide a clear line of sight with no blind spots. This means, for example, mounting a camera high in the corner of a ceiling to provide optimal observation with no gaps in coverage. Good coverage also avoids reentrant corners such as recessed doorways in corridors where an inmate can hide. Stairways are also a big element in surveillance and care must be taken with camera placement. For instance, keeping steps open may be optimal but regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which took effect in July 1992, may require "kick guards" between steps. Expanded mesh kicks are a way to comply with requirements but also help disclose a person hiding under the stairs.

In the end, choosing camera placement should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Getting the best coverage within a facility's budget is a matter of management discretion as well as negotiation with staff.


Telemedicine and More

In addition to real-time surveillance and investigations, video has been shown to be successful for visitation, arraignments and more recently, telemedicine. Return on investment often occurs within the first few years.

Many states are burdened with aging populations and chronically ill offenders. Medical specialists are not usually located uniformly throughout a state, and especially in rural areas, so there may be few practitioners from which to choose. Transportation is also impractical due to the high cost of escorting inmates. Telemedicine can help ease this burden. It is ideal for postoperative consults, examinations that require any type of scoping, and minor irritations such as skin rashes. This tool widens a facility's net, allowing physicians to be consulted quite easily. Telemedicine can potentially result in significant savings to the department and it also has the potential to raise the effectiveness of the treatment. Of course, it also minimizes transportation, which enhances public safety, and saves manpower, vehicle maintenance and fuel costs.

However, there continues to be issues with image quality, in some cases on the physician's receiving end. Also, for the service to be worthwhile for physicians, it is critical for patients to be batched in groups of three or four at a time. Telemedicine is a technology that is continually evolving. It should be watched carefully, as it is anticipated to come into its own in the near future.

Currently and in the future, video courtrooms have the potential to be a tremendous cost savings boon. Judges are more and more accepting of the idea--video cannot only drastically cut down on manpower, maintenance, escapes and wasted time spent on the road, but it can cut down on court schedules too. Even if correctional departments do not have the budget for a full-blown system sufficient for trials, brief hearings and arraignments can easily be conducted in-house. It seems that three out of four times, a court outing is done just to get a continuance. For such a simple task, use of video could avert hours of lost time and pay.

Smart Cards

Magnetic stripe key-card systems are becoming more commonplace in correctional facilities and for good reason. A fairly simple hotel-like card can be programmed to open selected doors and deny access to others. Even a basic system permits inmates to come and go from their cells without an escort. Fewer moving parts alleviate the wear and tear and constant maintenance of traditional keys. Somewhat more sophisticated, smart cards are an emerging technology that has application in any size facility. Inmates can move freely about in permitted areas, such as dayrooms and counseling areas, lowering manpower required for escorts. More important, these provide a wealth of intelligence gathering and reporting capabilities. Smart cards not only time-stamp who gained access to a door but which cards were tried in a door and denied access.

Smart cards have great untapped potential for increasing staff efficiencies. They will eventually not only grant or deny access through a door, but will hold all information regarding history, medical, commissary and other records. Unfortunately, inmates do not always use their own cards. Elliott County Correctional Facility in Kentucky has overcome the challenge of stolen cards by integrating card usage with video surveillance. In this way, facility staff can track where, when and who swiped a card.

Some of the Latest Technology

In the past decade, touch-screen technology has allowed detention staff to integrate the ease of automated computer technology with operations such as access control, plumbing and lighting. In Illinois, 25-year-old toggle switches have been replaced with touch screens for door access with marked success. Eliminating tangled wire on the floor, touch-screen technology permits doors to be linked together for simpler control.

Layout of a control room is terribly important for security, and a straightforward design is key. Larger monitors have been replacing multiple smaller screens, making it easier to keep track of inmate movements. Instead of being required to constantly swivel their chairs to monitor screens and open and close doors behind them, correctional officers can now keep all wings they are monitoring within their field of vision.

Electronic flush valves were installed in all new facilities in the Illinois state system beginning in the mid-1990s. While they do cost slightly more to install, these devices drastically improve operations by allowing prison staff to immediately shut down the plumbing system, eliminating the last flush before an imminent shakedown.

Flush valves provide another significant value. In a metered analysis conducted by the Illinois DOC of twin dormitories in an Illinois facility--one side fitted with such a device and the other without--it was shown to cut water consumption by about one-third. Data showed it minimized maintenance and reduced the number of gallons of water used by inmates in Illinois from 85 to 95 gallons per inmate daily, a change from nearly 150 gallons and a tremendous cost savings.

Perimeter Security

Nonlethal stun fences are currently used for perimeter control with excellent results. Considered more humane, these barriers also have a more appealing look to a community, particularly in denser, urban areas. Because they have no razor ribbon/concertina wire, they may appear less intimidating but deliver high functionality.

Voltage can be adjusted to get progressively stronger. For instance, the first impact can be benign, the second impact can be harsher and the third may knock the intruder down. Nonlethal fencing is used in maximum-security facilities in the Illinois DOC. False alarms are mitigated, and perimeter control is undoubtedly more secure.

The Future

Emerging technologies such as explosive residue detectors and heartbeat scanners are beginning to be tested in correctional settings. The latter, which have been known to detect a heart beat in a mouse, are effective in finding escapees in a food delivery truck or a laundry bag.

In the future, biometric readers that scan fingerprints, palms or even corneas, will prevent use of aliases, disguises and other forms of false identity. Body alarms that wirelessly transmit man-down information will increase safety of correctional officers. And wireless inmate tracking devices will not only lower required escorts, but will assist investigations by recording and documenting inmate movements. In this time of severe budget constraints and manpower shortages, DOC administrators need to fully justify expenditures and new electronics. Even when they are replacing systems, some adminstrators are still trying to recreate existed antiquated systems. In this electronic age, high-tech prisons are not indulgences that waste taxpayer money but are benefits that drive cost savings and staff efficiencies.

Jeff Goodale, AIA is vice president and director of correctional design for HDR Inc. Dave Menzel is architect for the Illinois Department of Corrections Capital Programs Unit. Glen A. Hodgson, AIA, is owner of Hodgson Associates Architects and Planners Inc. in Springfield, Ill.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Goodale, Jeff; Menzel, Dave; Hodgson, Glen
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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