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The future has arrived for correctional officer communications

Bringing the “connected officer” concept to life requires strategic thinking and thoughtful planning

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By Scott Neal

Jails and prisons are inherently dangerous places to work. Correctional officers and other personnel work in close proximity to inmates, many of whom can be extremely violent, manipulative and resourceful.

A 2015 study by the International Corrections and Prisons Association of the correctional environment in the United States revealed 256 workplace assaults for every 10,000 correctional officers in 2011, a rate that was 36 times the rate for all American workers. A year later, London’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported the assault of more than 1,000 correctional officers in the United Kingdom – over a two-month period. Of these assaults, 95 were considered serious, with many involving slashings by prisoners using homemade weapons. In addition, 905 correctional officers were victims of less serious assaults, representing about 15% of the workforce.

To put the danger into sharp focus, a convicted murderer in Pennsylvania was charged last year with the attempted rape of a correctional officer while she was working alone in her office. In 2014, an inmate was convicted of beating, choking and raping a female clerk who was working in another Pennsylvania correctional facility. She reportedly was alone with the inmate for 27 minutes and it took 30 minutes for help to arrive after the clerk sounded her emergency whistle.

These types of attacks are far too common, and no correctional facility is immune to them. In both scenarios – indeed, in any scenario that involves an attack on corrections personnel – the victims would have benefited greatly from the “connected officer” concept.

An abundance of technology

People of a certain age remember fondly the cartoon detective Dick Tracy, created by Chester Gould. Tracy sported a wrist radio, and later a wrist television, as he dealt with the likes of Flattop, Mumbles and The Brow. The wrist television was considered so futuristic that no one thought it ever would come to fruition. But little did Gould – and the rest of us, for that matter – realize just how prescient the concept was.

Indeed, a dizzying array of devices and systems are available to the “connected officer,” all of which enable them to do their jobs better and safer. The device that most readily comes to mind is the body-worn camera. But there are many devices and systems available that enable the transmission of mission-critical data to and from correctional officers, both inside jails and prisons as well as outside (e.g., when they are transporting inmates to courthouses or medical facilities). Here’s a partial list:

Collectively, this technology exists to provide correctional officers and other personnel, as well as their commanders, with unprecedented situational awareness, and to provide commanders with vital health and well-being information about their officers.

[Corrections1 resource: How to buy body-worn cameras eBook]

Critical location awareness

Correctional officers perform many roles, and they can find themselves just about anywhere in a jail or prison. Some work in control centers, while others patrol cell blocks or are positioned as stationary guards. Still others work as tower guards or in the facility’s healthcare center, commissary or library, where multiple inmates often gather. Some drive transport vehicles.

It is important to always know the location of every correctional officer and inmate and to ensure that no officers become isolated, especially when inmates are in proximity. It is equally important to monitor interactions between correctional officers and inmates, who can be highly manipulative.

Inmates often will become friendly with correctional officers, which is easy to do because they are in contact daily, with ulterior motives in mind. For example, feeding the officer information to set up another inmate who has been deemed expendable or to convince the officer to turn a blind eye to certain activities (e.g., the delivery of drugs or other contraband).

Inmates know every blind spot that exists in a facility, and it is crucial to know when they’ve entered such areas. It is in these areas where they will do their worst, including attacks on other inmates, which are a daily occurrence across the United States.

Boosting safety with technology

The most important aspect of the connected officer concept is the bidirectional flow of data between correctional personnel and their commanders, information that not only will help them do their jobs better, but also keep them safer and perhaps save their lives. Let’s examine how the connected officer concept could have benefitted the attack victims referenced earlier in this article.

The feed from a body-worn camera would have alerted control center personnel that an attack was ensuing, even if the attack came from behind, and they immediately could have sent help that could have lessened the severity of the attack and the injuries suffered by the victims.

A wearable biometric sensor would have generated data that the victim was experiencing physiological stress that would have been a clear indication that something was amiss, which again would have triggered an immediate response from the control center.

One of the victims was rendered unconscious by her attacker. In this case, as soon as she hit the floor in a prone position, the biometric sensor would have generated a man-down alert that also would have generated an immediate response.

Personnel and inmate tracking systems would have generated data indicating that the correctional officer and inmate were together in isolation, which could have prompted the control center to immediately send backup.

Moreover, in one of the attacks, the inmate was at large for a short time; while there was no chance of escape, the timeframe was enough to provide him with the opportunity to inflict more carnage, perhaps an attack on other unsuspecting correctional officers and/or inmates. Inmates don’t need much time to inflict a lot of damage, so knowing their whereabouts is a must.

The ability to query a jail-management system (JMS), using a tablet computer or smartphone, could have alerted each victim to whether the inmate had anything in their background (e.g., a history of mental health issues and/or violent behavior) that might have been a red flag, indicating an attack might be imminent. In one of the incidents identified above, the attacker was a convicted murderer. Knowing such information in advance might have prompted the victim to call for the appropriate backup to ensure that they were never isolated with their attackers.

The ability to access a JMS also would provide great benefit to correctional officers dealing with an inmate-related incident, in that the information they gain would help them determine the correct course of action. For instance, knowing that an inmate hadn’t taken medications that day or that a treatment regimen needed to be adjusted and knowing those factors might have triggered an incident, rather than a pathological inclination to violence, could influence the incident response. This is vital intelligence to have when handling a potentially explosive situation.

[Corrections1 resource: How to buy jail management software eBook]

Real-life applications of technology

Let’s explore how some of the other technologies identified earlier in this article could benefit correctional officers, their commanders and other personnel working in the facility.

Perimeter sensor systems can turn on cameras and trigger lighting to help determine whether an inmate is trying to scale the fence, or an animal bumped into the fence as it stumbled around in the dark.

An AVL system can indicate when an inmate-transfer vehicle has veered off the expected route, a sure sign of trouble.

Video-conferencing systems enable inmates to have their day in court without transporting them to the courthouse, which reduces risks to correctional officers. Such systems also enable the use of telemedicine, with the same benefits.

Drone-detection systems prevent contraband from being delivered to inmates by dropping it from the sky.

Jails and prisons are constructed using thick concrete walls that not only are very effective in keeping inmates inside the facility, but also are very good at blocking radio signals of all kinds. For this reason, an in-building signal-amplification system is a must.

The possible uses of technologies available to the connected officer seem to be limited only by one’s imagination. Correctional officers potentially have unprecedented access to situational awareness via the connected officer concept that they need to do their jobs better and safer. But deploying and using these devices and systems present a wide array of significant, but not insurmountable, challenges.

[Corrections1 resource: How to buy drone detection eBook]

A few obstacles

The first obstacle concerns whether the department has access to a broadband communications network. Without one, most of the devices and systems referenced in this article would be unusable because the size of the data files they generate would choke a narrowband system, causing significant jitter and latency, and perhaps preventing data transmission altogether.

In addition, the department’s back-end infrastructure needs to be capable of supporting them. For example, the video generated by the camera systems in play must be stored in a way that ensures chain of custody and court admissibility if the footage is to be used for evidence in a subsequent criminal proceeding.

Data harnessing is yet another major challenge. A tremendous amount of data will be generated by devices and systems leveraged by the connected officer. However, neither personnel nor their commanders want to comb through a tsunami of raw data to make response decisions. What they want instead is a much smaller volume of highly contextual data. That context ultimately will need to be delivered by improved data analytics driven by artificial intelligence and machine-learning solutions.

Arguably the biggest challenge concerns funding, which should come as no surprise. The devices and systems that combine to make the connected officer a reality are expensive, as is the back-end infrastructure needed to support them. It is tempting to start buying a bunch of shiny things. We call this the “Best Buy phenomenon.” A person walks into the store with the intention of buying a DVD but walks out of the store with a home-theater system that they cannot afford and has no room in the house to set it up, plus they no longer can afford to buy a DVD to play on the system.

Technology procurements should not be approached haphazardly. The way to avoid the Best Buy scenario is to develop a well-conceived strategic plan that prioritizes device and system purchases based on needs and available funding. Needs should be prioritized from most important to least important, and then those needs should be tied to the available funding. There always are “must haves” and “nice to haves.”

The process is no different than buying a car. There are things you absolutely need (e.g., an automatic transmission, power steering, air-conditioning, cruise control) and everything else is optional. Engaging the services of an independent, vendor-agnostic, third-party consultant to guide the prioritization and strategic plan development is a good idea.

In summary, this is a very exciting time for corrections departments and the correctional officers and other personnel who work for them. The devices and systems that combine to create the connected officer will generate unprecedented situational-awareness data that will enable field personnel to perform more effectively, while at the same time keeping them safer. Numerous obstacles exist to deploying and using such gear, but none are insurmountable if departments are thoughtful and disciplined.

About the author

Scott Neal is a former Pennsylvania State Police major who is vice president, director of wireless services for Mission Critical Partners, a leading provider of data integration, consulting and network and cybersecurity solutions headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania. Contact him at