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Future Tech: High Tech Prison Reform

High-tech prison reform comes to America's state and federal inmates

By William Speed Weed
May 1, 2001 5:00 AMApr 25, 2023 7:27 PM


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At the federal supermaximum-security penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, sits alone in his cell 23 hours a day. For one hour a day, he is allowed to exercise in a private yard. At this prison, lockdown is a way of life, not a temporary security measure. Meals are delivered to the inmates on carts, each one passed through a slot in a cell door. The only humans they see with any regularity are corrections officers.

Two decades ago, only a handful of the most feared criminals experienced such isolation. Today 42 states have similar supermaximum prisons, bristling with systems to reduce staff expenses and minimize opportunities for violence. New "SuperMax" facilities are still under construction across the nation, but prison officials are pushing to allow more human contact among inmates. And new technology is beginning to make such change possible.

"If you put inmates into prisons where their only human contact is banging on the walls to other inmates, then whatever social skills they had going in will atrophy, and their predilection to delinquency will grow. That just sows the seeds of recidivism," says Martin Horn, Pennsylvania's secretary of administration, who served as secretary of the state's Department of Corrections for more than five years. Workers at prisons are also beginning to echo his view. The challenge is to provide humane treatment for the growing number of prisoners while satisfying citizens' demands to minimize costs.

One solution is to give prisoners more virtual contact with the outside world. Most prisons already have video teleconferencing booths that let inmates consult with their lawyers via satellite. Ohio is expanding the concept to allow prisoners to attend virtual college courses. And Ohio, along with several other states, is installing telemedicine exam rooms in some penitentiaries. A doctor in the prison examines the patient with a stethoscope or performs an electrocardiogram; the results are relayed over the Internet to a remote medical specialist who sends back a diagnosis. Reginald Wilkinson, the director of Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, argues that this remote link allows him to provide safer, faster, and cheaper doctor visits than would be possible if the prisoners went physically under escort.

Technology can also help by eliminating many of the most dangerous and routine jobs in a prison, allowing more guards to be deployed among the inmates. A handful of the newest prisons, including the Toledo Correctional Institution in Ohio, use "smart" perimeters that can eliminate the need for staffed watchtowers. Electronic sensors monitor the tension in barbed-wire barricades, seismometers detect any suspicious shaking of chain-link fences, and microwave beams pick up motion in the deserted areas between fences. A positive signal from any of the systems sounds an alarm, swings surveillance cameras to the appropriate spot, and sets off warnings in a guard booth and the perimeter patrol car.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has produced a complementary innovation: sound detectors that count the number of heartbeats in service vehicles as they leave the prison, reducing the need for routine searches. These devices are now in use at several facilities— most notably at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee, where four inmates escaped in a hidden compartment in a flatbed truck several years ago.

Law-enforcement officials are especially excited about tools that track and monitor prisoners' whereabouts. Prisons in Arizona, California, and Texas are testing a system developed by Motorola, in which prisoners and officers wear bracelets that transmit personal radio IDs. Receivers throughout the prison pick up the signals and relay them to a computer that displays everyone's exact location in the prison.

"It's like watching a video game. You see each prisoner on a map of the prison as a red dot, and each officer as a blue dot," says Steve Morrison, deputy director of corrections at the Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center in Charleston, South Carolina. A single officer monitoring the display can keep tabs on thousands of prisoners. The computer can alert a guard if a dangerous prisoner comes into his area or raise an alarm if someone is out of place. It can also track two prisoners who hate each other and selectively block access through certain checkpoints to make sure they never come in contact. The computer can also keep a log of everyone's movements, aiding investigations of assaults or other crimes. Most important, Morrison says, prisoners know they are being constantly monitored. Guards, too, know they are accountable for their actions.

Radio IDs aren't the only way to monitor movements in the pen. Some facilities are experimenting with digital scanners that read palm prints, iris prints, fingerprints, voices, or facial patterns. Inmates and guards will be scanned each time they pass through a checkpoint, so the prison computer system can always display where they are.

Such systems play into the goals of officials like Pennsylvania's Martin Horn, who has championed humanizing technology in his state's prisons. They allow inmates to remain in group detention, where they receive more supervision and more opportunities for social interaction, and reduce the need for solitary confinement.

Not all states are following Pennsylvania's lead. Although high-tech solutions may ultimately reduce staffing demands, they require funds for construction, installation, and training. Despite all the dollars allocated to expanding the police force and increasing arrests, there is little support for similarly expanding the budget for the control of prisoners. "There's nobody screaming to give money to corrections," says Morrison, who runs a test center for new prison technologies in Moundsville, West Virginia.

Nevertheless, Horn and other experts see technology pushing prisons away from isolation toward integration. Alan Turner, visiting scientist at the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C., and a former prison warden, envisions a future in which tracking and monitoring systems keep the process going even outside the prison walls. Certain prisoners, he says, could continue to wear bracelets with Global Positioning System receivers and radio transmitters after they are released on parole.

"Say you have a sex offender who is up for parole," Turner says. "You have an overcrowded prison, so you want to let him out, and he has served good time. You can say, 'You can go to your house, and you can go to your job, but we will always know where you are, and if you go to the playground or to the 7-Eleven, an alarm's going to sound and a patrol is going to come pick you up.' " In that world, high-tech gizmos would help maintain the delicate balance between the prisoner's right to freedom and society's right to security.

Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations by Chase Riveland (National Institute of Corrections, Jan. 1999) offers a sobering overview of the history and nature of the Supermax approach to incarceration; see www.nicic.org/pubs/1999/014937.pdf.

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