Five Areas of Technological Innovation
By Matthew Crawford (01/07/2006)

 

 Alexander Fox

Technology plays a major role in the lives of corrections employees. It keeps them safe and it makes their job easier, but unfortunately, if technology is applied incorrectly or not properly tested, it can also be the source of major headaches.

Alexander Fox does his best to make sure those headaches never occur. As director of security technology for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, chair of the American Corrections Association Technology Applications Committee, and a member of the Northeast Technology Product Assessment Committee, Fox is wired into the ever-evolving world of corrections technology.

"Corrections is becoming more sophisticated," Fox says. "There's a lot of technology that we're trying to introduce that law enforcement has had, and that the military is using that makes sense for correctional use."

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However, Fox says there is still a stigma attached to implementing new technologies that is not always called for.

"The minute you talk about technology, people associate it with a higher price," Fox says. "There's a lot of technology that is inexpensive that would actually reduce operating costs if you use it."

Fox recently outlined five areas where innovations are changing the way facilities are managed and operated.

Offender Tracking

Offender tracking comes in two primary forms - institutional tracking and community tracking. Both have merits and downsides.

Community tracking has gained the most attention, primarily because of recent legislation in several states that allows officials to track released sex offenders with global positioning systems.

"A lot of publicity is happening in regards to tracking sex offenders out in the community using GPS tracking devices," Fox says. "It's an up-and-coming technology that we will most definitely see being implemented in a number of states."

Most systems currently in place use active GPS that allows for real-time monitoring of sex offenders' movements. The systems are also used to monitor the movements of other paroled offenders, but they do have some drawbacks.

Weather and buildings in metropolitan areas can affect the performance of GPS systems, and the systems cannot monitor subjects when they are indoors, according to Fox. He says a survey of states that use the systems for monitoring would have mixed results because GPS performance varies in different environments.

Institutional tracking of inmates is less widespread, but it does have significant benefits for facilities that use the technology.

"If you have a disturbance at a particular location you would be able to identify what inmates that were in that area at the time of the disturbance," Fox says. "The technology can also be applied to a perimeter inside the facility or around the facility."

Institutional tracking is primarily made possible by FID technology, which is "basically a radio frequency," Fox says. However, unlike other radio frequency systems, the technology is expensive.

Less Than Lethal

Ideally, less-than-lethal technology provides the perfect balance for correctional facilities that could face severe ramifications if an employee dies by the hands of an inmate or vice versa.

The use of gas, bean bags fired out of shotguns and other methods of inmate suppression are commonplace, but new technologies now used by the military and the private sector could emerge at correctional facilities in the near future.

One recent innovation is a portable water canon that includes water tanks that are strapped on the operator's back. In contrast to water canons currently in use at facilities, the portable water canons can easily be used indoors, according to Fox.

"The technology is still very much in the experimental stages and it is in use in other countries," Fox says.

Two laser technologies currently used by the military may also find their way into correctional facilities, according to Fox. A laser light that is used to disorient the subject it is aimed at could be used to quell inmate uprisings or to assist in forcible removals.

"In my opinion it is a tool to be use in conjunction with another stronger tool," Fox says.

Another laser device releases painful heat on whomever it is shined. The military uses the technology now, according to Fox, but the apparatus is large and must be mounted on Humvees.

"It heats the upper layers of your skin to such a degree that it's so hot you drop to the ground," Fox says. "It does not cause any permanent damage at all."

Fox says eventually the apparatus could be developed so it is smaller and more portable, which would allow for its use at prisons and jails.

Another potentially painful technology used in the private sector to disperse large crowds is a device that uses sonic radio frequencies to create ear-splitting noise that could be a strong deterrent for misbehaving inmates.

"It's enough to damage your ears if you get to close too the actual noise," Fox says. "It's enough to put you down on the ground."

Contraband Detection

Metal detectors are the standard for contraband detection at correctional facilities. Walk-through, handheld, and sit-down metal detection devices are common in jails and prisons throughout the United States.

A metal detection device that comes in the form of hand gloves is also becoming popular at facilities, according to Fox.

"When you're patting down an individual the glove will actually vibrate to let you know that metal has been detected in a particular area of the individual you are searching," Fox says.

The unit allows for greater mobility when conducting pat-down searches, but some agencies think the method is confrontational because the subject of the search must be touched for metal to be detected, Fox says. That method could cause problems when males must search females or visitors at a facility.

At the forefront of contraband detection technology are systems that can detect contraband made out of other materials such as plastic, wood and paper.

There are several technologies that are in the experimental stages, according to Fox. The most viable method being developed is FID technology embedded in materials that have potential to be used as contraband. Similar to electronic anti-shoplifting technology used at retail stores, FID tags can be placed in broom handles and other items that inmates could try to make weapons out of. Any concealed item with an FID chip would sound an alarm if an inmate passes through a detector.

"It's something that people are looking at because FID tags are very cheap, they are very small, and they can be embedded in almost anything," Fox says.

Other more futuristic technologies being investigated include acoustic sensors that bounce a high-pitched sound off a subject to create an image that can reveal contraband, holographic imaging screens, millimeter wave technology, and backscatter imaging.

"These are the technologies that are being supported by the government to further evaluate for use in law enforcement," Fox says. "All of those technologies can identify nonmetallic items and any type of contraband, but most of them are experimental and are going to cost well over $75,000."

Drug Detection

Similar to contraband detection, there are several practices in place to detect drug use among inmates. Urinalysis, breathalyzers and ionizing machines are mainstays, while sweat patches and saliva tests are used sporadically.

Fox says he is aware of new walk-through ionizing systems at two correctional facilities. When someone walks through one of the systems three blasts of air shoot up from the bottom of the system and blow particles off of the subject's clothing into a capture area at the top of the device. After the particles are trapped they are analyzed for drugs and results are produced within 15 seconds. The units are also capable of detecting explosives.

They could be effective at correctional facilities, but they cost about $100,000, according to Fox.

"That is kind of unrealistic at this time," he says.

Cell Phone Detection

Illegal cell phone use at correctional facilities continues to be a major concern as cell phones become smaller and more accessible. The problem is not going to go away without the development of new technology.

"It is a priority nationally and a number of commissioners are working with companies to develop technology," Fox says.

Under FCC regulations, it is illegal to block or jam cell phone signals. Therefore, agencies are pushing for the development of technology that can easily detect where signals are coming from so cell phones can be located and confiscated within a facility.

"It's an issue and you are going to hear a lot about in the future," Fox says.

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