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Prison Security Extends Beyond Concrete Walls and Steel Bars
By Robert Hood, Correctional Consultant
Published: 04/13/2009

Entry security 2009mar24 Editor's Note: Columnist Bob Hood is a former warden of the “Supermax” federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. He has been the warden of four major correctional institutions during his 34 years of service.

Just as video killed the radio star, a failure to acknowledge technology’s role in helping secure correctional facilities may help kill the nation’s already overcrowded prison system. The recent report issued by the Pew Center on the States highlighted the nation’s prison system, detailing reasons why it is overcrowded and how much money is put into it, among others. Unfortunately, there was no mention of technology. Today, the increased use of technological innovations spans across all industries and allows companies and operations to be more efficient, stay ahead of the curve and more importantly, keep environments safe and secure. More attention should be focused on how technology in correctional facilities can provide solutions to current and future problems, but also help save taxpayers money and help reduce overall inmate numbers.

Wardens and administrators in today’s correctional facilities face new and old challenges that increasingly make it more difficult to keep peace inside prison walls. In my experience, our greatest challenge as correctional professionals is the introduction of narcotics in the prison setting. A rising portion of those imprisoned are there because of illicit drug use or drug-related offenses. If we don’t have a way to keep this and other forms of contraband out, the system fails. Much of the funds allocated to state and federal prisons go to other programs when a significant portion should be allocated to the increased use of preventative and informative technologies.

As witnessed with other high-security industries, technology is a key component to ensuring the stability, safety and overall security of correctional facilities nationwide. Traditionally, decision-makers have asserted a strong resistance to allocating funds for prison technology. Even today, the perception remains that concrete walls, steel bars and canine units should be enough. That’s not the case. Because they’re more likely to have already passed through the system, today’s prisoners are more knowledgeable of institutional operations, which means administrators always need to be five steps ahead. The benefits associated with the strategic use of security technology boil down to one concrete ideal many of us have yet to seriously contemplate: safety for all populations, within prison walls and beyond.

The use of security technology has increased amidst growing concerns for public health and safety, as evidenced in our daily lives at airports, government buildings, and public and private facilities. Unfortunately, no such trend has come to fruition in our nation’s vast system of correctional facilities, posing an increasingly salient challenge to the safety and security of those incarcerated and those who work or reside in the immediate vicinity of correctional facilities.

As indicated in the recent report, today’s prisons are overpopulated, understaffed and under funded. There are roughly 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in local jails, and federal and state prisons – 1 out of every 131 citizens. Over the next five years, with “get tough” policies such as “three strikes out” put in place to crack down on crime, researchers forecast imprisoned populations will increase by 200,000, with an expected cost increase in excess of $27 billion.

Furthermore, studies show prison violence is on the rise, making it harder for diminishing staff levels to sustain secure environments within prison walls or to keep margins of human error in-check.

Commodities such as drugs, metal objects and cell phones, through a modified system of supply and demand, can effectively cause disruption or major disputes within the prison population. Our field is in dire need of advanced methods of ensuring all contraband is confiscated before entering prison grounds. Non-intrusive technologies that scan for weaponry, narcotics or explosives, such as those found today in airports, are a good start to providing prison staff with a first line of defense to maintain a controlled and secure environment.

Correctional administrators should develop comprehensive narcotics interdiction plans which include advanced technology. No longer can we afford to rely on canine units as our primary method to detect narcotics and explosives within our nation’s prisons. Trace technology picks up where canines leave off, providing immediate on-site identification of narcotics and explosives entering the correctional setting or already in use within the facility.

Current technology can detect traces down to nanogram levels (one billionth of a gram). Trace detection is a process of sample collection and analysis of target substances that are not visible by other means. The principal applications in corrections are for entrances, visitors, staff, contractors, vendors, and work release. Inside the facility, areas such as mailroom, dining halls, recreation centers and living areas provide great locations for detecting trace contraband.

While technology is sometimes more cost-effective than increasing staff size, we must remain cognizant that it’s not an appropriate replacement for the committed individuals who labor day and night in our nation’s correctional facilities. When utilized in tandem, advanced technologies can significantly augment the safety of institutional staff, visitors, inmates and surrounding communities.

The use of security technology in the prison system is essential to maintaining order, staying ahead of the prisoner learning curve and enhancing staff effectiveness when eyes, ears and bodies are simply insufficient.

I’m not calling for a total demolition and rebuilding of prisons, but the question remains: how do we improve existing prisons and their archaic, concrete and steel bar systems, using security solutions to help overall institutional environments? The goal shouldn’t be to spend frivolously on security products, but to employ the right types and quantities of technologies that deliver appropriate security levels in all detention centers.

Technology can be expensive, but it’s proven to work, and I long for us to be avant-garde in the ways we employ technological innovation to create correctional environments that benefit inmates, staff and American taxpayers.

Bob Hood is currently is the National Security Specialist for GE Security. Contact info: robert.hood@ge.com

Other articles by Hood:


  1. ahma_daeus on 04/14/2009:

    A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) THIS PETITION SEEKS TO ABOLISH ALL PRIVATE PRISONS IN THE UNITED STATES, (or any place subject to its jurisdiction) The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil. We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America. Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.” Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system. John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG” There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope. It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress. Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On! The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems. These new slave plantations are not the answer! For more information please visit: http://www.npsctapp.blogsppot.com or email: williamthomas@exconciliation.com To sign the petition please visit: http://www.petitiononline.com/gufree2/petition.html THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT! William Thomas National Community Outreach Facilitator The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons P.O. Box 156423 San Francisco, California 94115

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