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Canary in the mine
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 06/14/2010

Canary I have heard a few stories about my family’s past concerning the hazards of working in the anthracite coal mines of Eastern Pennsylvania. Clearly, miners faced many perils. Cave-ins, black lung, and poisonous gasses are just a few of these. Of course, these hazards are with the industry today. And while mining is not quite what it was in Dickson City in the 19th century, I cannot help to wonder if they used canaries in the mines. The image is evocative and iconic.

Just as in mining, past and present, not everyone would willingly work in corrections. Of course, there are different dangers in our filed. Prominent among these is the very real potential of being assaulted. Even though violence against staff is a reality, we always seek to mitigate this. Following our canary analogy we ask ourselves this: Can we employ a sort of canary in corrections? In other words, can we smell trouble before it impacts us?

There are four sorts of canaries that we can use in our facilities. They will work with varying degrees of effectiveness and are tempered by facility culture, shifting priorities, and application by individuals. They are, lone vigilance, shared observations, crime mapping, and technological canaries.

Lone vigilance is the entry level advanced warning mechanism. It is when one staff watches for events to unfold based on experience or a tip. An example of this is interception of an anticipated threatening note. However, one staff person’s watchfulness exists in a vacuum if the event is not reported or recorded.

This can shift quickly to shared observation when lone staff communicate finds. When the staff that discovers the threatening missive shares information with the chain of command, the concern expands and coordinated corrective action can be taken. Observations can take a multitude of paths. Unfortunately, we sometimes neglect to pass observations to different shifts, between distinct work areas, and to the institutional inspector. Other avenues on which to route information include the facility grape vines and to unofficial specialists such as those knowledgeable in security threat group patterns. Shared observations should not stop at the fence. Many lives have been saved in corrections because professionals send crucial information between facilities.

Crime mapping is more sophisticated example of corrections canaries. And it is much more proactive than the previous two steps. It is a system where specific sorts of events are recorded by date and location. One can think of old crime drama movies where a large city map is dotted with pins marking the location of crimes. In corrections, for example, contraband finds can be marked by date and locations by one color. In another color, assaults can be plotted, and so on with other offenses. Either manually or through available software, these events can be charted and analyzed for possible future occurrences.

Technology is a Pandora’s box on which a canary can perch. And the contents and utilities of the box change daily. One example of recently developed wizardry is the cell phone detector, an unobtrusive device that picks out the existence of cell phone signals. Of course, as detection technology advances, so, too does anti-detection technology. It is a strange, competitive dance in which canaries and anti-canaries react to one another.

Except for an unbelievably oblivious optimist, we can agree that no system is fail proof. Despite all of our best efforts, harm can come our way, no matter how many canaries we utilize. The mines of yesteryear in Lackawanna County had canaries. So, too should corrections. The combination of many sorts of safeguards increases our success rate in the pursuit of safety in our facilities.

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