|Prison Security Extends Beyond Concrete Walls and Steel Bars|
|By Robert Hood, Correctional Consultant|
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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