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The right step in technology preparedness
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager
Published: 02/23/2009

Regular contributor, Gene Atherton is in his 30th year of service in the criminal justice field. He is currently Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center in Florence, Colorado.

It is discouraging to go through years without getting many resources for needed technology improvements in correctional institutions. The common result is to have a “why bother” attitude and instead focus attention on other management challenges of the day.

The problem is that when the opportunity does arise, which can be sometimes unexpected, the institution is not prepared, and poor decisions can be made as a result.

For example, a county jail has an inmate escape into the community. After action is taken, analysis indicates that the camera system in the jail is outdated and in need of replacement. In the midst of all the bad publicity, the county commissioners are ready to fund a major upgrade of the jail’s security technology. Jail leadership needs to offer a plan to proceed immediately, but, unfortunately too often, that plan does not exist.

The best strategy, in good or bad times, is to always have a plan ready to present. The following are some characteristics of a good security technology enhancement plan (STEP) for correctional agencies.

A good STEP should be like a “shopping list” that is ready to use. In the best of all worlds it should be one portion of an overall plan for the institutional security program. Like a shopping list it should reflect what you want, where to get the product, and its best price.

A good enhancement plan should also be an accurate reflection of institutional needs and be able to meet mission requirements. For example, it is easy justify technology that relates to officer safety. It is easy to justify technology that relates to the safety of the community in the form of preventing escapes. The more direct the relationship between those outcomes and the product, the easier it is to justify. The plan speaks powerfully when those common threads are emphasized.

A good STEP, wherever possible, must connect the existence of proposed technology with performance outcomes. Decision makers on major funding issues require accountability.

In other words, if you want to strengthen perimeter technology with a detection system you need to demonstrate with reliable information that past escapes have occurred through the perimeter of your institution, or through institutions with similar technology design, and that your proposed changes are going to make a substantial difference.

That information needs to be reflected in your institutional technology plan. So, if the person approving money for your system asks for an explanation of your plan, you must be able to describe the results you intend to achieve in the form of objectives, and how they will be measured.

The STEP must be contemporary, so it should be ready to come off the shelf and be presented at any time. Technology prices and providers change constantly. However, once the format is established and support staff are aware of the right sources of information, it should not be difficult to upgrade and adjust the plan over time.

“The first function of a correctional institution is to protect the public. Thus, security is of primary importance of every correctional agency. An agency that cannot prevent escapes and control violence within its institutions is considered a failure” 1

This mission is difficult to accomplish without a successful expression of resource needs.

Depending on the needs and style of the agency, the STEP can take many design segments. As an example, some of the core functions of institutional security a grouping of technologies that support the function, such as perimeter security in the form of lighting, fencing materials, electronic detection of movement on the perimeter, equipment for staff duty stations (sally ports, towers, and vehicles), and electronic contraband detection.

Staff and inmate communication would involve technology related to intercoms, radios, telephones, emergency callback systems, pagers, and cell phones. Again, each plan must be designed to address the needs of the institution and highlight those technologies that are a high priority for the institutions.

The technology specified in each functional area of the STEP should be specific, including a product name, unit cost, and overall cost for funding that specific function and an overall cost for funding the plan.

Further, it may be helpful to have more than one plan such that each plan suggests a different funding level. Very often legislators and commissioners do not like to think there is only one option to address security concerns.

Finally, the plan should reflect changes in operating costs regarding both short and long-term maintenance. It should answer questions such as, “Can the system being proposed be conveniently folded into an existing technology maintenance program at the facility, or are additional staff services required to maintain the system?” Funding for those anticipated costs should be part of the STEP proposals.

The history of corrections is full of examples where effective planning is critical to eventual outcomes. Security technology enhancement plans are particularly important because they support the provision of a safe and secure correctional environment and the effective investment of public funding.

Therefore, the typical high dollar amounts for security technology demand accountability in the form of product knowledge and professional decision-making.

1. Guidelines for the Development of a Security Program, Third Edition, 2007, Eugene E. Atherton and Richard L. Phillips, American Correctional Association, page 3, last paragraph.

Gene Atherton served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections, which included the assignment of Security Specialist from 1992 to 1997, where he developed security and emergency management policy; designed new prisons; established staffing analysis; and created a system for insuring standards in security technology. In 1997, he was Warden at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, and then became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004.

Atherton also is president of Correctional Consulting Services Group, and has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections> He is co-author of “Use of Force –Current Practice and Policy”, “Supermax Prisons: Beyond the Rock,” “Guidelines for the Development of a Security Program, Third Edition”, and “The Evolution and Development of Security Technology”. He can be reached at gatherton@wildblue.net

Other articles by Atherton


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