Corrections today is rapidly changing. Although most prisons continue to use outdated technology such as paper and pencil for counting inmates, in some ways correctional departments are being forced to adopt new technology. In this set of pages, we will continue to explore the tech that is altering prison life worldwide.
By C J Oakes
Building a Better Mousetrap…or Prison
The old adage, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door” is false. The simple fact is that no better mousetrap has ever been successfully sold that did not already have a ready market. Sure, there are some technologies that, once built, get the attention of the masses and become almost overnight sensations, but this is not the case in Corrections.
Most correctional departments, be they local, state, or federal, hate to spend money they do not need to spend. Most are notorious for the attitude that why change something if it has always worked in the past. That is why so many use paper and pencil to count inmates–it is simple, quick, and effective…usually.
Of course, this simple yet presumably effective method allows for ample mistakes. For example, the State of Texas learned a hard lesson in 2016 when an inmate was found dead in his cell. The inmate, Alton Rodgers, had been dead for an indeterminate amount of time but it was long enough that 18 correctional officers were severely disciplined in the matter. Essentially, several officers counted the inmate in his cell and failed to notice he had been killed. But of course, it is easy to do when all that is needed is a mark on a piece of paper to indicate the presence of someone. Could some kind of new technology be on the horizon to prevent such problems?
Drones, Feeding Slots, and BOSS Chairs
Other issues which will force correctional facilities worldwide to add new technology involves drones. Now that drones are inexpensive, prison officials are facing new threats to security. As reported in the Washington Post, drones are capable of flying over a prison to drop drugs, pornography, cell phones, and other contraband. How to deal with this problem is rapidly becoming a problem for prison officials. They cannot exactly shoot the drones because then they risk ordinance falling on innocent civilians living not far from the prison.
In addition, inmates continue to find creative ways to sneak items into prisons. BOSS chairs (Body Orifice Security Scanners) are common in most correctional facilities, but these are limited in what they can identify. The BOSS chair is designed to detect metal hidden in the body, but the metallic object must be large enough to be detected. Very small pieces of metal, such as a piece of a thin razor blade hidden in the lower lip, often fail to set off the detector.
Another area where prison officials may need to invest in better security tech involves feeding inmates. In prisons where inmates are under lock most of the day, they are fed through locked slots in the doors. These slots can be opened by use of a long metal rod designed just for that purpose. But these rods can also become a weapon as reported by the Texas Tribune in 2016 when an inmate did just that. The Correctional Officer involved was killed.
Other Areas Where Prison Officials Will Need to Consider New Technologies
It must be kept in mind that a prison is essentially a small city. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, the modern correctional facility must operate as if self-contained. Men and women eat, sleep, work, recieve medical treatment, education, and more in the confines of tall fences and concertina wire.
Unlike what is shown on TV and in movies, those guarding the inmates are not armed with guns or billy clubs. In most cases, the only protective gear they possess is a can of strong gas (like Mace, but worse) and their wits. Tasers are not used within the perimeter of the unit and cell phones are not allowed in most locations. Walkie-talkies and telephones are used for communications. It is not out of the realm of possibility then that technologies will arise to address some of the more serious security issues which arise at times because of such archaic tools.
In addition, the restraints used in most penal systems are essentially the same designs used for the last several decades. They are effective, but not without problems.
Medical facilities in prisons too are facing troubles because whereas most prisons severely limit Internet access within their walls (for good reason), much of the medical equipment in use today requires such access. The Internet of Things (IoT) is certain to create challenges in Corrections because it will force departments to increase the number of items with such access. Unfettered access to the outside world creates security risks which will have to be addressed carefully.
Oddly, some correctional departments are providing and allowing access to tablets by inmates involved in certain educational programs.
Technology and Corrections Today…and Tomorrow
As early as 1997, corrections officials were looking at technology as a way so solve such problems as overcrowding, transportation, and more. There was a belief at the time that as computers became more powerful, they could take over a range of tasks previously handled by humans. The idea was that prisons could become more efficient and costs would decline.
Of course, that was before the prison population boom really got underway. That was also before cell phones and drones became abundant. The simple fact is that prison systems around the world will adopt a technology, but will likely do so at a slower pace than the rest of society. That has largely been this history of the prison system–it has always been slow to adopt change.
But then, that makes sense when one remembers that the mission of a prison is to keep persons convicted of crimes inside. Change always brings a period of adjustment, a period of trial and error. In the prison system, errors can cost people their lives.
Still, there is no doubt that technology does and will continue to impact correctional departments. Issues related to contraband, especially dangerous contraband, security, and safety can be better managed with new technologies. So prison tech, regardless of how far-fetched or realistic, deserves a place on this website.