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Illinois technology improves security and reduces staff in two Illinois prisons.

Robert Frost once said, "Good fences make good neighbors." When a family's neighbor is a prison, it wants really good fences. The appropriate use of new technology can enhance the security and capacity of a correctional facility, while at the same time, reduce staff and costs. Such developments are beginning to drive the design of new jails and prisons.

Late last year, Illinois completed construction of its newest maximum-security prison in Thomson and has started construction on a second one in Grayville. These facilities are the first new maximum-security prisons to be built in Illinois in decades. They are each designed to hold 1,600 inmates in single-cell configurations with an additional 200 inmates in a minimum-security unit. The driving design parameter for the projects was the Department of Corrections' stated objective of keeping maximum-security inmates in groups of no more than 50.

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An important aspect of the new design was the perimeter fence. Even with the groups of 50 or fewer inmates, there was concern about maintaining a strong perimeter due to the nature of the maximum-security inmates. Due to the high-risk inmates who will be housed at the Thomson Correctional Center, the original program considered the use of a lethal, electrified perimeter fence. During the design meetings, the concerns over the political and legal issues surrounding the lethal fence systems led the team to consider other options. After extensive research and much debate, the design team selected the nonlethal option.

Nonlethal Versus Lethal Perimeter Fences

Nonlethal electrified fences can offer many advantages, avoiding the controversy of using lethal, electrified perimeter fencing. Concerns about the use of the lethal electrified fence range from the ethics of its use to the legal issues generated if an inmate is killed in an attempt to escape. Public perceptions of this type of fence can be significant. Because a lethal fence does not require any human response or action by a correctional officer, it is seen as being inhumane and indiscriminate. Another ethical issue is the protection of wildlife. Many environmental groups have expressed their disapproval of lethal electrified fences because of their potential to kill birds and other animals. The use of a non-lethal electrified fence can mitigate many of these issues while still providing both a physiological and physical barrier from escapes, as well as intrusion from the outside.

The design of the Thomson and Grayville prisons uses a state-of-the-art, nonlethal perimeter fence. Similar in concept to the handheld stun guns used by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, non-lethal electrified containment fences stop inmates without causing severe harm or death. If an inmate tries to climb or cut through the perimeter fence, he or she will receive a non-lethal jolt of electricity, which causes temporary immobilization. At the same time, the system initiates an alarm to prison staff that an attempt has occurred and identifies its location. These facilities will be two of only a handful of prisons in the United States employing this system.

The nonlethal fence can greatly reduce costs because facilities would not need to build or staff as many watch towers. Depending on the required security level, a facility surrounded with this fence will require fewer towers or none at all. A staffed tower costs about $250,000 per year to operate. Eliminating towers or choosing not to staff them during certain shifts allows a facility to better manage staffing costs.

At the Illinois Maximum-Security Prisons (I-Max), a traditional exterior fence surrounds an interior fence equipped with stun technology. The fence can be designed in several different configurations: The electrified portion can be located on the inside of the fence (on the "no man's" side of the fence), on either side of the interior fence above normal-reach height, or extended above the top of the traditional fence. Delivering an electric shock roughly equivalent to that of a stun gun, the fence sidesteps many of the legal and political problems associated with potentially lethal barriers.

The fence also serves as a zone detection system, making traditional detection systems unnecessary. So far, the system has had an extremely low occurrence--virtually none--of false alarms compared with more traditional perimeter detection systems. This kind of fencing system may become standard for new prisons nationwide and has potential uses that are much broader. For example, any high-security site, such as an embassy, could use a version of this system at the top of its perimeter wall. The installation of this system would provide the desired intrusion deterrent while keeping the public safe from accidental contact with the system.

Under Vehicle Surveillance System

Another major area of concern in the correctional setting is the number of vehicles entering and leaving its secure perimeter. One of the newer technologies employed in the design of the I-Max projects is an under vehicle surveillance system. This is a drive-over camera system that records a video image of the license plate and the underside of any vehicle entering or leaving the secure perimeter of the prison. This system allows prison staff to check each vehicle for possible escape attempts and keeps a digital recording of every vehicle that enters or exits the prison. Some of the older video surveillance systems use video-tape to record and store the image of the vehicles. This system, while effective, requires a large number of tapes and a location to store them, as well as an archival system to track the tapes. With the emergence of less costly, high-capacity, digital storage systems, this issue has virtually disappeared.

Biometric Identification

A biometric identification system was installed at the recently completed Thomson Correctional Center and is soon to be installed in the Grayville facility. It uses electronic fingerprint identification to identify inmates and staff. The systems, due to storage and retrieval times, still must use additional identification (i.e., ID card, wrist bracelet, etc.). However, as the digital system becomes faster and more cost-effective, this dual identification system will no longer be necessary. Even with the dual identification system currently required, the system provides a log of all activities in and out of locations chosen by the facility to aid in the management of the units and in defense from lawsuits. To further enhance this safety feature, video cameras monitor staff and inmate safety while derailing lawsuits that may allege improper behavior.

Although not used in the I-Max projects, a new biometric system to be aware of is the facial recognition system. This system, which uses facial recognition by matching more than 200 individual points on the human face with a digitally stored image, is used to control access in buildings and rooms inside buildings, and is now available and will become much more common in the near future. It is rapidly decreasing in price but currently costs approximately $15,000 per location and should only be considered for limited sensitive areas such as armories or evidence storage rooms due to the high cost of each system. But keep an eye on this technology, as its reliability has greatly improved (98 percent to 99 percent accuracy) and the price continues to decrease.

Changing Needs

Prisons are changing and whether the changes are manifested through hardware, software, materials, systems, technology or design, they are helping to drive that change. Not only should institutions look to the correctional industry for new developments, but it also should keep an eye on homeland security products and systems that may apply to the correctional environment. The appropriate application and use of these emerging technologies, therefore, will make correctional facilities safer, more efficient and less costly to build.

Gary Burdett is project manager for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Mike Retford, AIA, is a justice principal for DMJMH+N Architects and Engineers in Salt Lake City.
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Author:Burdett, Gary; Retford, Mike
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:1290
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