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Technology in Corrections: Panacea or Pariah?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 10/24/2011

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Once upon a time, it seems, that a common sentiment in corrections was, “Technology be damned!” However, two factors have made this exclamation as archaic as an eight track tape player. First, technological innovations have come rapidly and with great utility. In other words, the world is forcing us to adapt as a profession. Second, these innovations ultimately can save money. And this is important especially in times of economic uncertainty.

I am not condemning corrections as atavistic. Things have changed and corrections staff are not tied to the old ways. You are a case in point, if you are reading this online. This is a document that was created without paper and through electronic means. Certainly, later incarnations may be passed in paper form. But the first corrections professionals to read this do so on-screen.

Technology is neither a panacea nor a pariah. As with most things, there are benefits and there are pitfalls.

Now, let us consider electronic storage. Many prison law libraries are planning to utilize the technological magic of electronic storage. If done right, this can save a considerable amount of money over current print systems.

Is the general library next? Consider that today's price of an electronic book reader is around $100 and falling. Just a few years ago the price was quadruple. Companies may offer versions pre-loaded with a variety of books at a reasonable price. Perhaps it is not a stretch to say that it will be possible to outfit an individual with a book with a small library at a reasonable cost. And it is a matter of agencies delimiting the collection through a restricted publications list as outlined per policy directives and operating procedures.

This will help with security. Consider the current policy where a prisoner is perhaps allowed 25 books in his or her possession. Think of all of the places that one could hide dangerous contraband. However, an inexpensive, preloaded electronic book reader nullifies this. There would be fewer opportunities to pass or hide things when one has a self-contained library.

The electronic storage of music illustrates the speed of innovation. Agencies jumped right past the CD from the cassette tape to the MP3 player. The danger is diminished in two ways. Obviously, the CD is no longer an issue or a possible weapon. Secondly the MP3 player offers a smaller number of options for concealing contraband. There are even fewer places to hide things than in the common cassette tape player. Agencies are developing a manner of how prisoners purchase and store music. This can be applied to electronic book collections.

Does miniaturization of electronics make the lives of corrections professionals instantly better without hazard? Not entirely. In fact the rise of the cell phone as contraband is evidence that technology is a two edge sword. Cell phones are evolving to become smaller and more useful. Therefore, huge amounts of information can be stored on these devices.

Agencies and their staff must stay ahead of the technological curve by setting and knowing the limits on each device. Unless electronic book readers and MP3s are monitored and sufficiently tailored toward safety, fears of electronic storage and transmitting information apply. These must be devoid of recording, filming, and wireless capacities.

The need is great to foolproof each device through testing and research. In other words, there's nothing like tinkering with a complementary display device offered by companies. I believe that it behooves agencies to permit staff to trouble shoot these devises prior to wide implementation.

Of course, the new frontier of technology is really just building off of advances from the past. In other words it's not like going from an arctic setting to a tropical coastline in one step. There are graduations. With that in mind, basic vigilance, corrections experience, and technological prowess in staff is a good combination for security. In the end, old tricks remain and new tricks are created. All the gadgets in the world are worthless without staff watchfulness.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Joe Bouchard, has been with the Michigan Department of Corrections since 1993 as a Librarian for the Baraga Correctional Facility. He also teaches criminal justice and corrections classes for Gogebic Community College. He is the editor of The Correctional Trainer, the official journal of the International Association of Corrections Training Personnel and MCA Today, the official journal of the Michigan Corrections Association.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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  2. computerpo on 10/26/2011:

    Joe, very well put. Great article!

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