Pa. county prison correctional officers start wearing body cameras
COs can decide when to turn the cameras on, a policy that has drawn some criticism
By Christine Vendel
DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. — Correctional guards at the Dauphin County Prison are expected to begin wearing body cameras Monday, adding a new layer of protection for employees and inmates.
For the past month, supervisors have been wearing them to work out technical issues or questions that arise. On Monday, body cameras were supposed to be available for every guard on duty, county officials said.
The cameras, however, won’t be recording continuously. Guards will decide when to turn them on, a policy that has drawn some criticism. But constant recording posed logistical issues, county officials said, including battery drainage and immense footage storage requirements.
Guards generally are instructed to turn on the cameras any time they interact with an inmate and if a situation is escalating, according to Brett Hambright, Dauphin County’s new spokesman. Guards also “must oblige” and turn their body cameras on if an inmate asks them to, he said.
Circumstances could require an officer to have a camera activated for an entire shift, Hambright said, but in most cases it will be up to the discretion of the officer.
Community activist Kevin Maxson, who lead protests and meetings to improve conditions at the prison in recent years, applauded the cameras as a step forward. He noted the move was progressive for Dauphin County.
“Not many jails are doing this, but Dauphin County is trying to change the narrative in that prison,” said Maxson. “I feel it’s long overdue.”
Maxson said he has some reservations about guards being able to control the camera use, but said overall it’s a “win” and should shed more light on what is happening behind prison walls.
The cameras will help protect guards, Maxson said, and also inmates, including those accused of crimes like assaults behind bars.
Before, he said, a guard’s word would carry more weight in the courtroom than an inmate who denied an assault or other action, but now there could be an expectation of video evidence.
While guards control their own cameras, employees in a control room also can turn on a guard’s body camera remotely in the case of a surprise attack or incident where the guard doesn’t have time to activate.
The body cameras are always buffering, so when activated, the previous 30-seconds are recorded and saved as well, Hambright said.
The prison already has mounted cameras throughout the prison that record activities in common areas 24-hours a day, but do not capture the interior of individual cells and some corners.
The addition of the body cameras “will be progression in transparency,” Hambright said as the stationary cameras will supplement the body cams and vice versa. Ideally, the body cameras could show angles that might become blocked from the position of the mounted cameras.
The cameras cost nearly $565,000 for 125 camera systems and a five-year contract with the Axon company. The contract was approved by the prison board in September 2019, using money from a jail fund that collects money from inmate phone calls and other fees, not taxpayer money.
The cameras will be worn all the time with some exceptions, including while in restrooms, locker rooms, and staff trainings and meetings, Hambright said.
The retainment times of video footage will vary, Hambright said, but typically will be stored for at 30 least days or until footage is downloaded. However, he said, in incidents where guards use force, for example, the footage may be retained indefinitely.
Footage will be stored using Evidence.com, a secure cloud storage service maintained by Axon.
The body cameras represent the latest in a series of improvements at the prison including dozens of policy changes, electronic tablets for inmates and adjusted meal times. The staff also went through crisis intervention training to help them better recognize and deal with mental-health issues.
The body cameras also come on the heels of a litany of controversy at and criticism of the Dauphin County Prison related to several recent inmate deaths. Two inmates died last year while in custody, one reportedly from complications from a duodenal ulcer, and another from a brain injury after a fight with his cellmate.
The deaths were in addition to at least 11 other prisoners at the prison who have died since 2011, including five suicides.
One particular death prompted significant public outcry, the death of 18-year-old Ty’rique Riley. His death was ruled by the coroner to have been due to natural causes, but it prompted protests and questions about conditions at the prison.
Maxson said he hoped the body cameras would result in safer conditions for everyone who works or lives at the prison. He also said there are additional improvements that must be made at the prison, including ensuring daily outdoor time. As it stands, inmates have not been allowed outside since 2007, because of lacking security measures.
“There is still a lot of growth and evolution that needs to take place,” said Maxson, who was recently named chair of the prisons committee for the local chapter of the NAACP.
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