Technology can Help in Challenging Times
By Alex Fox and Dorothy Fox (12/30/2009)

The correctional industry has a proud history of grappling with the most difficult times head on and with great success. The challenges have come in various forms at various times, from trailing behind the business world at the onset of information technology, oftentimes dragging ourselves kicking and screaming into the 21st century, to recovering in a post-September 11 world that changed everything.

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We’ve struggled with the pressure of perceived intrusion from outside sources, including the media, political and legislative influences and external oversight bodies. We’ve dealt with the challenges of supporting and motivating staff who work in a dangerous environment with little recognition from the public of the sacrifices to protect them.

Our profession has shifted philosophically from an atmosphere of isolation to one of embracing transparency, collaboration with other agencies and shared power. Corrections has had to find new inmate management strategies to deal with a more violent population and the influx of gangs. The field has exponentially become more professional, sophisticated and driven by industry standards, such as accreditation and performance measures.

The correctional industry has focused on changing the culture from acceptance of prison abuse to adopting a zero-tolerance policy for misconduct of any kind. Perhaps the shifts that have shaped the industry most are the ever-changing focus of our very purpose from a mission of treatment, to a single focus on custody, to re-entry and recidivism reduction.     

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Never has our community had to deal with these difficult issues while simultaneously sinking into the most significant fiscal downfall in decades. Few have escaped the painful consequences of staff layoffs and furloughs, agency reorganization, elimination or downscaling of specialized functions, training reductions, cutbacks in medical services and inmate programs, and closing facilities.

Nonetheless, we have no choice but to continue to successfully manage all the competing yet mission-critical priorities at hand. Given the grave importance of this profession, there is no room for lowering our standards or allowing fewer resources and mounting challenges to jeopardize the safety of our staffs, inmates or the public.

There is no single or easy answer as to how corrections will most prudently overcome these challenges and thrive in the fiscally bleak modern day world we find ourselves in. We need every tool in our arsenal to aid us in meeting this goal.

For some challenges, the answer may lie in honing policy and operational efficiencies. For others, the answer may lie in capitalizing on the many technological advances available to the corrections community. For some challenges, the answer lies with the integration of both.

Embracing Technology

While these realities may seem insurmountable, the good news is that there are powerful solutions at our fingertips if we choose to embrace them. As ironic as it sounds, technology that one might categorize as a costly luxury may actually be quite the opposite. A wisely chosen technology can provide an organization with just the right tool to help it manage its most pressing challenges.

Many agencies are already in the habit of embracing technology as a means to maximize resources and dramatically improve security, operations and inmate management practices. More than ever, this is the time to keep doing what you are doing and to share your successes and best practices with others.

For those agencies that have traditionally not integrated technology, these times call for a fundamental shift in how and why decisions are made and what solutions you are willing to consider.

Dismissing technology as too costly can be a costly mistake. Even if you are technology aversive or skeptical, it is important to be open-minded.

Systematic Approach

The introduction of new technology must be done deliberately and judiciously, but by no means should the decision be tied exclusively to cost reduction. More importantly than ever, technology should be introduced because it either improves physical security and staff safety or because it can provide cost savings. The great benefit is that in many instances the two go hand in hand, and in improving one, the other also improves.

Expert

Alex Fox will regularly answer questions from readers. E-mail your security and technology questions, comments and topic suggestions for the to cn@emlenmedia.com.

The decision should always be made by taking proactive steps to identify mission-critical priorities, security threats and resource gaps. It is crucial that this be done in the context of a broader operational strategic planning process.

It is imperative to identify and fully understand the problem and its root cause before jumping to a technology solution that may or may not be the right one. Consider first whether policy or other operational changes might optimally address the issue. If not, it’s time to assess existing technology to determine if you are receiving the maximum gain or if it is outdated. If the outcome of this initial assessment is that operational changes and/or existing technology do not sufficiently meet your needs, new technology solutions should be explored.

It is essential for a product evaluation to be undertaken of any prospective new technology so that decisions are not made in a vacuum. The cost/benefit analysis should conclude that the end result outweighs the cost. Skipping this step can easily result in purchasing what may turn out to be nothing more than expensive but ineffective gadgets.

Knowledge Base

This may seem to be a daunting task, but I have seen many effective examples across the country of evaluation, selection, and introduction of technology that are transferable to any agency. There is a wealth of information on emerging technologies and many exciting initiatives occurring on a national level in both the public and private sectors.

This monthly column will provide a forum to identify and share national trends, innovations, strategies and best practices that are cost effective in the context of long-term gains that aid agencies in maintaining secure environments.

We will discuss groundbreaking technologies from the defense environment that have potential application in corrections, such as biometrics, less-than-lethal directed energy and conductive energy devices, and video analytics.

We will also explore other promising technologies that are emerging in the corrections field, such as cell phone detection and defeat, concealed contraband detection, inmate tracking through passive and active GPS/RFID, kiosks, inmate accountability, staff attendance and roster management, software for inmate management, intelligence gathering, information management, performance measures, and analytical dashboard technology.

We look forward to sharing our expertise and experience with you, and we invite you to become engaged in this interactive process by writing in with your questions. We must all remain open to forward thinking ideas and strategies and leveraging innovative security practices and technology solutions wherever they may be found. In these fiscally challenging times, it just makes sense to explore all options. Stay tuned.

After 29 years with the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Alex Fox retired from his position as director of security technology to launch a private consulting venture. Dorothy Fox served as director of systems development during a 22-year career with the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

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