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Overcoming Obstacles to Correctional Technology Upgrades
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Kaplan University
Published: 12/19/2016

Visit-jail Corrections professionals are all too familiar with the range of challenges facing the U.S. correctional system: tightening budget constraints, overcrowding, contraband, rising inmate health care costs, an aging offender population, high recidivism rates, and high turnover rates and recruiting difficulties among corrections staff. Many of these challenges can be mitigated through proper application of technology, yet across the country agency after agency continues to rely on existing but inadequate methods. Understanding the obstacles that impede implementation of technological solutions is the first step toward moving forward.

One of the most significant obstacles is also the first item in the list of challenges above: budgetary constraints. The implementation of any new technology has costs, of course, but in a corrections setting those costs are often exacerbated by unique factors. For example, barcoding systems enable the tracking of inmate movement throughout a facility, providing automated warning if too many offenders occupy a given location or an individual is in an area that is prohibited to him or her. Yet the nature of prison construction—thick walls, the extensive presence of metal and concrete, and so so—mean that wi-fi technology normally used to implement such a system is ineffective. The result is a requirement for extensive cabling, which significantly increases cost. Beyond that, any technology must be adapted for the unique conditions of a correctional facility, such as security concerns, also increasing costs.

There is no magic wand that will make this challenge vanish. Vendors can innovate, of course, but that is beyond the control of corrections administrators, and moreover the private sector innovates in response to market demand. If corrections agencies are adopting a given technology on only a limited basis, there is less profit incentive for vendors to innovate and even more limited adoption by agencies, creating a vicious cycle. Administrators must be judicious in selecting those technologies that will have the most significant impact so that success will encourage further adoption of technology.

The good news is that a 2015 RAND Corporation study found that correctional professionals “expressed a desire for improvement in available technologies…more often than they identified areas in need of any initial technological innovation.” In most cases all that is needed is the improvement of current technology, the adoption of existing off-the-shelf solutions, or even just more comprehensive employment of existing technology—a lower bar for vendors to meet.

Another aspect of the budgetary challenge is mindset. Leaders and policymakers at all levels—including those outside the corrections field, such as legislators and governors—must view technology upgrades as an investment, not an expense. An investment not only pays for itself over time but ideally returns financial benefits in excess of that cost. The complication is that quantifying the financial impact of a specific technology can be difficult and often requires identifying second-order effects. For example, increased efficiency is a good thing, but putting a dollar value on it may require measuring the reduction in labor hours required for a specific function.

Technology can assist in ways that might not be immediately apparent. For example, an automated offender management system that replaces hardcopy files enables multiple users to view or edit an offender record simultaneously and updates that record for all users in real time. At a California facility that still relied on paper files, officers did not know that a newly-arrived offender was a high security risk because that information was not accessible to them and so failed to transport him with a sufficient number of officers. As a result, the inmate attacked and killed one of his escorting officers.

As already mentioned, success tends to breed success when implementing technological solutions, so proper implementation is vital. At the earliest stages, it is important to obtain buy-in from the staff that will be using the proposed solution. Line officers and supervisors should be extensively consulted to determine the best technological solution, and ideally before that to ensure that administrators are even proposing to solve the right problem. Change is usually difficult, and adapting to a significantly new way of doing things will require new procedures. Those new procedures, and an evaluation of whether the requirements of the new system will mesh with the facility’s operations, are best determined by line staff. Officers must understand the benefits that will come in return for the temporary pain of transition, and they are most likely to buy into that tradeoff when the explanation comes from their peers.

Next, the implementation of any technological solution must be accompanied by thorough training. It is easy to overlook this expense when determining the cost of a project, but without training the solution will be used improperly or not at all. Administrators must allot adequate hours for training and ensure that it includes some mechanism to test understanding. Training costs come from either overtime hours or additional straight-time hours for other officers to backfill trainees, and given the staffing challenges faced by many facilities, this alone can become a major puzzle that must be solved to enable implementation.

Training and buy-in are so crucial because any technological solution that produces or relies on data inputs is subject to the principle of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Staff must ensure that data is input accurately and timely and that all procedures are followed. To return to the example previously cited of the escort officer killed by a dangerous offender, if the facility had an offender management system in place but the officers failed to check the inmate’s security rating prior to transport, or the sending facility had not updated that information properly, the same fatal outcome would have occurred even with a technological solution in place.

Technology is no panacea, but it has the potential to significantly improve efficiencies and outcomes in corrections. For example, a wide range of technologies from improved risk assessment to location tracking and deception detection could enable wider use of supervised release as an alternative to incarceration, relieving overcrowding and reducing costs. But the successful adoption of technology requires administrators, leaders, and policy makers to be prudent in their selection and implementation of those solutions and ensure the full involvement of line staff.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters



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