High tech meets hard time
(IDG) -- To the inexperienced, prison operations may seem a lot like some grainy, gritty movie from the 1960s, with a fixed set of stock players. The warden is the guy with a belt loop full of jangling keys, the guards are the people silhouetted against a watchtower in profile with rifles, and the prisoners are the ones starting food fights in the mess hall that inevitably lead to riots and lockdowns.
Those roles, say wardens, corrections officers and state information technology managers, are just a tad out of date, made so at least in part by an influx of technology in new prisons that changes the way day-to-day operations are managed. Similar to almost every other institution in the United States, the maximum security prison-and its even tougher new sibling, the supermax-has gone high tech in a big way.
The jangling keys are gone, replaced by pneumatic doors and keyless entry systems. Perimeter security is now managed by vibration-detection systems and electrified fences, with a few lengths of traditional razor wire thrown in for good measure. And thanks to aggressive use of up-to-the-minute digital video, those mess hall food fights can be contained nearly as soon as they start, with perpetrators clearly and easily identified and reprimanded on the spot.
Corrections has long been an area that makes the average citizen anxious and uncomfortable, and many Americans, including state and local officials in other disciplines, may choose to look the other way while the new breed of high-tech prison does its work on the country's most dangerous and recalcitrant prisoners. But in many ways, prison developments mirror changes that are happening outside jailhouse walls: Think of it as cutting-edge facilities management with a potent security chaser on the side. Likewise, the two themes emerging in prison technology-centralization (or re-centralization) and end-to-end connectivity-are the same issues being grappled with by government organizations across the country.
In addition to cell doors, prison perimeters and other places where security is expected and visible, the new crop of prisons feature technological innovations where laymen might not expect them. For example, at the new, 100-bed High Security Maximum Control (HCON) unit on the grounds of the Polk Youth Institute, Butner, N.C., plumbing in individual cells is completely automated. From a remote, centralized control panel, corrections officers pre-determine when, how long and at what temperature an inmate's shower will be. Tap water in the basin can be turned on or off remotely, and the system controls how frequently the commode can be flushed.
"I'm from the old school," confessed HCON administrator George Currie. "I've worked [in corrections] for 28 years, and it's mind-boggling to me to call a maintenance man for the plumbing and see him coming in with a laptop computer."
The reason behind such innovation is more familiar, Currie said: enhanced security when dealing with the state's most disruptive and assaultive inmates. It's common for inmates to throw feces or urine on guards, create a disturbance by flushing toilets until they overflow or remove handles from showers to use them as weapons, Currie said. With touchpad panels on showers and basins and remote-control operation of water flow, guards can short-circuit such situations before they begin.
The move toward this degree of control is fueled by the newest breed of prison, nicknamed "supermax" for super maximum security prison. Its purpose is to house and punish inmates who management and guards say have repeatedly misbehaved in prison, regardless of the crime that landed them in prison in the first place.
The concept of places like Polk Youth Institute's HCON unit or the new 509-bed supermax prison in Boscobel, Wis., which is due to open in October, is simple: to isolate offenders from human contact as much as possible. Typically, supermax prisoners are locked in single-man cells 23 hours a day, with one hour of isolated exercise in a hallway or other unequipped room.
"To oversimplify a little, our goal is to bring everything to the inmate in the cell," said Jerry Berge, warden at the Boscobel prison. And while technology will aid in achieving that goal, it is quantity, rather than quality, that makes the difference. "Compared to other [prisons], there is a lot of technology here, but it's not really brand-new technology," Berge said. "The extent to which we're using it is unique."
Video, for example, enters into nearly every aspect of prison operation. In addition to video surveillance on the entire perimeter fence and exits, all corridor and cell doors will be equipped by an audio/video system that will allow guards in a remote, centralized control center to visually verify a person's identity before opening a cell. Also, each cell will be equipped with a closed-circuit TV that will pipe in educational, religious or substance-abuse programming in lieu of group- or counselor-based rehabilitation.
Even visitations will rely on video rather than human contact. Visitors will never actually enter the secure perimeter of the prison but instead will come to a separate gatehouse, some 200 feet away, where they will sit in front of a videoconferencing system. Inside the compound, a prisoner will be placed in front of a similar set of equipment, which can be brought to the cell if necessary. And like many other prisons across the nation, Boscobel will explore the use of telemedicine, which allows doctors to diagnose and treat some ailments remotely without having to move the prisoner. Berge hopes to add some type of telejustice to that mix as well.
Control at Boscobel will be much more centralized than at lesser-security institutions. "At some places, you see multiple control centers," Berge said. "Here we still have an officer station on each housing unit, but the entire institution is run from the central control center."
Increasing the level of centralization and integration is common among prisons trying to ensure they're harnessing newly automated systems effectively, but the strategy is taken to new heights at the high-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., which opened in September 1998.
By linking a 366-camera video network with a keyless door-control system and tying it all back to a single PC-based control pad, prison engineers were able to achieve a new level of surveillance over the building, according to superintendent Paul DiPaolo. "There are no security keys inside the facility," he said. All connecting doors are graphically displayed on PC screens inside an inner control room. To open a door, guards must first push a button, which activates an intercom. The intercom automatically activates a video image in the control room that shows who's at the door.
The control room software enables officers to monitor video from any camera in the institution as well as the closed-circuit TV system, lighting, fire alarms and a host of other building maintenance systems such as heating and air conditioning, DiPaolo said. "It's all coming to one screen and one controller. Everything is integrated to that degree."
By the end of this year, the Massachusetts Department of Correction aims to push that integration to an even higher degree by rolling out its Information Management System, which will link the DOC's internal information network with the security infrastructure in local prisons, including Souza-Baranowski.
The result will be something prison managers across the country say is a next step for corrections technology: a truly end-to-end knowledge management system that not only enables officers to know where a prisoner is and what he's doing but also how he has behaved in the past, how many visitors he's entitled to receive and how frequently, what property he's allowed to have and what medical attention he requires. When a prison accepts a new inmate, DiPaolo said, guards can simply call up his file over a wide-area network to see what medications he's due to take and when, rather than waiting hours or even days for that information to catch up with the prisoner.
As for the prison staff, DiPaolo says his technology-centric institution is nothing but beneficial to their jobs. "We're not replacing corrections officers with computers and cameras; we're empowering them with a tool [that helps them] control and manipulate a lot of information."
But nationwide, not everyone is sure whether the move to high-tech prisons is a bonus or a burden for corrections officers. In Wisconsin, Council 24 of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) -- the union that will represent corrections officers hired for the Boscobel supermax prison -- is taking a cautious stance on technology used at the site.
Corrections officers are wary because other technology-reliant prisons in the state have experienced occasional difficulties, said Marty Beil, executive director of the state AFSCME in Madison, Wis. At one institution, the computerized locking system failed when the building was hit by lightning, and all the cell doors opened simultaneously. "That's a little scary when you're the only officer working [in a particular part of the prison]," Beil said.
In general, corrections officers accept and even welcome new technology, provided it comes with appropriate training, Beil said. Most frequently, prison officials -- and Boscobel's Berge is among this group-prefer on-the-job training, where officers are shown around the systems on site and given a few hours or a day or two to familiarize themselves with operations. The
AFSCME would prefer a longer, more formalized, off-site training program to ensure that officers and other prison staff fully understand and are thoroughly comfortable with the technology.
Finally, automated systems change the average corrections officer's job description significantly, which some officers may want and others may shun. "Some would say [automation] makes their job easier; others say it's more tedious because you're not moving around as much," Beil said. "Especially at a supermax, there isn't a whole lot of person-to-person involvement, as opposed to other facilities."
That lack of person-to-person interaction, aided and abetted by technology, worries experts such as Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has spent the past 25 years studying the effect of prison conditions on prisoners. "Technology is a neutral tool, but when you add it to a place like a supermax, where the core assumption is to minimize human contact to zero, you've got a problem," Haney said.
Haney said one problem is that the new supermax's style of long-term, rather than short-term, isolation is much more likely to induce psychosis in prisoners, he said. Video rehabilitation, video visitation and other antiseptic services mean prisoners can live for 10 years interacting primarily through TV images. "That has a deteriorating effect on people. Even guys who go in stable begin to wobble and break under the strain," Haney said.
To those citizens who harbor little compassion for convicted criminals, Haney proffers another issue, which he says isn't widely realized by the general public. "These men are not lifers. The vast majority of them get out of prison. If we've done nothing to address their problems, if we in fact have done things to make them worse, it's not the prison that's going to have to deal with them, it's society."
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