Keeping large groups of inmates in one place is an intricate, dangerous, sometimes monumentally difficult task, and one stakeholders have refined and improved upon as long as correctional facilities have existed. In this sense, our nation’s jails and prisons are no more immune to the pace of technological innovation than any other public sector organization. Accordingly, the modern correctional industry is undergoing a full-scale tech revolution.
Thus far, the difference between corrections and other fields has been in the shape innovation takes. Where other branches of public safety may benefit from smaller, more powerful gadgets or revamped communication standards, a facility designed to manage prisoners for lengthy periods carries its own unique needs. Innovations in architectural design may make for a safer facility, for instance, while other advancements may need to be adapted to the rigors of prison life in order to provide value.
Aging prison architecture may influence thoughts on industry, yet new facilities reflect shifting mindsets
Prisons around the world still echo remnants of the once-popular panopticon design philosophy, first conceived in the 18th century, though the style has fallen out of vogue in recent decades. The Statesville Correctional Center’s F House, perhaps the last full panopticon in the United States, closed in 2016 due to a combination of financial, safety, and noise concerns. However, its distinct visual appearance remains immediately familiar to anyone who has seen a prison in television or film. The large, round room with cells surrounding a central guard post or “tower” (designed to give guards an unobstructed 360° view of the housing area) is integral to the plot of HBO’s Oz, and is a notable visual feature in The Shawshank Redemption.
The jail’s core design philosophy mirrors contemporary thought on prison architecture. Instead of centralized control and intimidation-through-architecture, experts today emphasize purpose-built design, eschewing the “one-size-fits-all” approach seen in older jails and prisons for buildings that make directed, functional use of space. The same experts put big value in things that may have been an afterthought in historical prison design, such as color, window size, ease of movement throughout the building (for staff) and individual wings (inmates), and residential living areas. This promotes rehabilitation by removing potential background stressors from the inmate’s environment.
Technology makes incentivizing easier in Netherlands prison
Purpose-built design and revamped comfort features are not the only innovations modern prisons have to offer, however. Some facilities are designed to include numerous high-tech features, illustrating the digital revolution’s continued integration with the industry. Moreover, some of these advancements show how technology might be leveraged to keep inmates focused, productive, and well-behaved.
Recent analysis of a Netherlands-based prison may grant a glimpse at the true prison of the future, for instance. The experimental prison, codenamed DCL, employs several architectural and design choices used in newer U.S. prisons, along with what researchers call “an elaboration of the panopticon idea.” Beyond that, it packs numerous high-tech features for prisoners, many of which expand upon the incentive-based programs deployed in prisons across the world.
Most of these incentives come from a portal that should be exceedingly familiar to most of us, namely a touchscreen. Devices affixed to every prisoner bed within the DCL provide a faster path to information and comforts common to many prisons. Using the gadgets, inmates can check commissary balances, make food selections, place calls, and order tobacco, among other convenient functions. Inmates also set their daily schedules in advance from the devices, making it easier for staff — all of whom are equipped with palmtop monitoring gadgets— to track movement across the facility.
Finally, the screens can be used to incentivize in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Bad behavior can, of course, result in the screens or certain features being taken away, while hard work, good behavior, and good old-fashioned cash allow prison administrators to “provide new privileges, content, and perks.”
The last point is of particular interest where technology is involved. Enter “gamification,” or the act of imbuing daily prisoner activities with tiered rewards. The practice, well received in U.S. prisons like Angola, translates perfectly to the digital screen. Inmates at DCL who appreciate having a screen can gain increasing privileges by simply doing what they are supposed to do.
Screens make familiar appearance in U.S. prisons
Of course, architecturally affixed screens are not the only ones with an increased legal presence in correctional facilities. While it may be some time before U.S. inmates are provided personal devices by the facilities they are housed in, jails and prisons are making room for screens with more practical uses — and updating a host of standard practices and services in the process.
Many of these advancements center on communication, another area in which screens have proven to excel in recent years. Telemedicine, a branch of healthcare seeing explosive growth outside prisons thanks to a shifting economic landscape and consumer-focused healthcare trends, is gaining increased traction in an industry where inmate healthcare costs can be prohibitive. In Texas, for example, jails and prisons have made heavy use of telemedicine’s reduced costs and lower labor complexity, which has led to lower per prisoner medical costs ($3800) than the national average ($6,000). A single doctor can see inmates from across the massive state over a video connection, allowing facilities to contract telemedicine services instead of paying on-premises medical personnel.
Visitation is another common area of technological improvement. Though largely two or more parties communicating over a combination of video and voice, the structure for video visitation is vastly different than long-distance medical care. Inmates and/or their families are charged for the video visit, much as they would for a regular call. Used as a supplement to regular visitation schedules, there are few apparent downsides to the practice. Nevertheless, critics have taken aim at the practice in facilities where person-to-person visitation is removed as an option when video visits are implemented. The software can be unstable, calls are expensive, and the cost and technology requirements can exclude low-income inmate families who may be unable to afford the technology to place calls or the calls themselves.
“Tech revolution” in prisons does not stop at prisoner-facing initiatives
Technologies focused on helping prison staff and administrators show an even deeper level of cutting-edge sophistication. Of these, modern solutions tend to fall into one of three loose categories: tools to automate processes, tools to automate decision-making, and tools to detect contraband.
The first and last items often merge; for example, the host of tools designed to sniff out and stop problematic cell phone usage. One solution in Maryland serves as a gatekeeper for cell network traffic, only allowing authorized numbers to place calls from the area of the prison, and is so proficient that prisoners have attempted to flush their phones down the toilet in its presence. Although the technology does have its snags — people who walk, work, and live near the prison have complained about having their calls unexpectedly blocked — the solution as a proof-of-concept is an attractive one in correctional facilities, where even ferromagnetic walls cannot possibly stop every illicit cell phone from breaching the floor.
Solutions built on the back of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology have also seen an increased presence in jails and prisons thanks in large part to their advanced tracking and counting capabilities. Jails in need of pinpoint-specific tracking capabilities can deploy a combination of RFID and GPS, but RFID can do an impressive amount on its own. Staff supervising inmates with RFID bracelets can perform instantaneous headcounts, and the devices can also be programmed per-inmate with allowed and restricted physical areas, with an alarm sounding any time an inmate with a bracelet enters a restricted area or fails to report to a scheduled area of the prison or work-release location.
Tracking technology should only improve with the widespread development and adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, which are largely built for tracking things or people across relatively small physical distances. Meanwhile, Big Data, or the large-scale, automated collection and analysis of information, is already making great strides with decision-making processes in correctional facilities.
Because Big Data solutions excel at finding trends, they can be great assets in finding errors in paperwork, supplanting “dumb” computers that hold data but do not analyze it. For instance, Offender 360, a Big Data solution in Illinois, was able to sniff out some 300,000 hours in missing days-off credits for inmates seeking education, saving over $10 million and giving inmates their earned early time in the process. On the other side of the same coin, correctional officials in Florida have used automated data analysis tools to identify and intervene with potential juvenile re-offenders, with the goal of reducing recidivism, and prisons in 15 or more states use, “some form of [Big Data] risk assessment,” before making parole decisions.
Technology’s reach within, importance to, correctional facilities will only increase
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these advancements are only a sample of the technologies prisons deploy today. New technologies will emerge to patch security holes created by consumer goods, something already accomplished with drone detectors designed to stop drug smuggling and the above-mentioned cell phone stoppers. Others, like GE’s cutting-edge, automated suicide detector, will lessen problems that have always existed in correctional facilities.
Regardless of format, however, expect correctional facilities to increase their dependence on numerous critical technologies just like any business or vertical with problems to solve. As technology continues its endless march toward greater functionality, more power, and lower costs, gadgets of all flavors will prove indispensable to inmates and staff in the corrections industry.