By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Technology can improve officer and inmate safety and make correctional facilities more efficient, yet many facilities still rely on paper records and manual systems. Technology like automated offender systems, inmate tracking systems, and enhanced commissary systems are available and proven to be effective in correctional settings, yet not enough agencies have them. Why? It almost always comes down to money, said Ron Wallace, criminal justice faculty member at American Military University.
“There’s a lot of great technology out there. The constraint becomes the financial inability to secure that technology,” he said. Wallace spent about 20 of his 33-year criminal justice career helping correctional facilities design and install new technology systems. He discussed his experience during a recent episode of Tier Talk radio, a podcast dedicated to discussing pressing issues and lessons learned in the evolving field of corrections.
During the show, Wallace argued that despite financial restraints administrators must prioritize investing wisely in technology to improve efficiency—which saves money in the long run—and will also help to protect officers and offenders.
Technology That Improves Safety and Efficiency
Automated Offender Management System
Implementing an automated offender management system can be one of the most beneficial investments for correctional facilities, said Wallace. An automated offender management system allows multiple users to access an offender record simultaneously instead of waiting for the paper file to be returned by the current user. There are many benefits to an agency implementing an automated offender management system, however, one of the biggest benefits is real-time information sharing. When something is updated in the offender file, all of the impacted parties have access to the information immediately.
Wallace shared one incident with Tier Talk listeners that demonstrated outdated and inefficient offender management processes used by one correctional facility.
“In one facility in California, correctional officers received a new inmate and didn’t know that he was extremely dangerous. This information was in his file, but the file was kept in a different building, in a different location. As a result, officers did not have the proper security measures in place. That inmate attacked and killed a correctional officer,” said Wallace. “If officers had had access to information about that inmate in real-time, they would have put security measures in place to make sure he had the proper number of officers with him while he was being transported.”
If the facility had an automated offender management system, information about all inmates would be readily available to line officers. Security risks would be highlighted in the record, which, in turn, promotes officer safety.
While such a system has great potential to improve safety measures within facilities, Wallace also reminded agencies that technology is only as good as those operating it. For example, having up-to-date prisoner information relies on officers and other correctional staff inputting data correctly and in a timely manner. Agencies must emphasize to officers and staff the importance of regularly maintaining information within the system.
Technology can aid in safety measures in other ways. For example, some correctional facilities have a system that tracks inmates’ whereabouts. Inmates wear a barcoded bracelet and sensors are installed at various locations throughout the facility. When inmates pass a sensor at a designated checkpoint, the system reads the barcode and records the time and location. The tracking system can be programmed to set off alarms when inmates are in restricted areas or too many inmates are in one location. Such a system also helps officers know the approximate location where every inmate is at all times, which can be especially useful during lockdown scenarios.
Correctional facilities can also track officers. Some facilities have equipped officers with a monitoring device that detects if the person falls—likely an outcome of being attacked. Officers who are attacked are often unable to request help immediately or relay their exact location. The system can handle both tasks, notifying other officers who can come to the rescue.
While tracking systems could improve safety and efficiency, Wallace noted that they are expensive. And it’s not always the cost of the technology itself that is expensive. The inmate barcoded bracelet tracking system, for example, is expensive because it requires the building to be retrofitted with necessary cabling. Due to the thick walls of most prisons, many facilities cannot use WiFi networks and must instead run cabling throughout the facility.
Enhanced Commissary Systems
Streamlining and automating prison commissary systems can also improve efficiency and possibly facility safety, said Wallace. The commissary, a store within a correctional facility where inmates can purchase products, can be automated to track how many items an inmate purchases in a certain period of time. For example, administrators can limit how many toothbrushes each inmate can buy in a month. When this limit is reached, inmates are restricted from purchasing this item. An inmate acquiring a high volume of toothbrushes could be using them to create a weapon.
Taking this a step further, correctional facilities can program the system to track funds coming into offender commissary accounts. If the same person is depositing funds into multiple offender accounts, the system would notify officials to investigate, said Wallace. Such activity could indicate that the offender is still conducting some type of illegal business either outside or inside the facility. A high volume of money deposited to an offenders commissary account by individuals other than immediately family could be a red flag that requires further investigation.
Steps for Upgrading Technology
Throughout his career of assisting agencies with new technology systems, Wallace knows firsthand that it can be an extremely taxing and frustrating process. He wrote about these very specific challenges in an article, 8 Steps for Implementing New Technology Systems in Correctional Agencies, which is a great resource to help administrators prepare for new systems.
One of the biggest mistakes administrators make when adopting new technology is not thoroughly involving officers in the process, said Wallace. “You’ve got to make sure your line staff understands the benefits and how this is going to improve their lives,” he said. “Any time there are changes—especially technological changes—there will be a period of hurt. The transition can be painful but to get through it, you’ve got to show them the bigger vision and do it from the start.”
Another often overlooked aspect of technology upgrades is the importance of training. While administrators know they must conduct training on the new system, few give much thought to the timing and logistics of training. “If you train too far in advance of the system being rolled out, every day that person doesn’t touch the system they lose a bit of what they learned,” said Wallace. Training can be more costly than administrators realize because they have to pay overtime to train officers on their off time or incur the added expense of paying additional officers to backfill positions while officers are being trained. “If you pull officers off the line to train them, someone has to take their place,” said Wallace.
While adopting new technology can be expensive, time-consuming, and complicated if administrators put in the necessary work in advance to prepare for the new system, it can prove extremely valuable by saving time and money and contribute to the safety of officers and inmates.