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How biometric technologies will help correctional facilities

Biometric technologies have already helped facilities improve offender identification and have the potential to improve efficiency for employee access authentication


This April 23, 2003 file photo shows the interior of the Arkansas Department of Correction prison in Malvern, Ark.

AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File

New technology solutions have made their way into the criminal justice system in the past decade. Highly visible implementations include the use of body-worn cameras on police officers and cloud-based solutions to store digital evidence used by their agencies.

Some departments have begun to use soundwave technology in crowd control procedures. Law enforcement agencies have upgraded to powerful new CAD systems, and 911 call takers in many cases can now receive urgent requests for help via text message.

One of the criminal justice environments in which technology also has quietly made a big impact is pairing traditional jail management software with the emerging capabilities of biometrics. Biometrics refers to a variety of methods to verify a person’s identity using physical characteristics, such as facial recognition, iris and retinal scanning, hand geometry and fingerprint scanning, as well as voice identification.

Biometrics also has the potential to fundamentally change the way in which jailers and correctional officers do their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

Biometrics for inmate identification

Beginning with the booking process, one of the most important things jail or prison staff has to do is establish the subject’s identity by collecting readable fingerprints. Failure to receive and retain sets of readable prints can present a host of problems, not the least of which is having an accused offender go through the entire criminal justice process – booking, sentencing, incarceration and release – without ever having his or her fingerprints properly captured.

Further, inmates whose identities are unknown due to poor (or nonexistent) fingerprint records have at times found ways to escape using a false identity.

Because of the large number of prisoners in some facilities, correctional organizations are sometimes finding it difficult to securely manage their identification records. Because of this, many prisons and jails are moving away from collecting fingerprints via the traditional ink-and-roll 10-card and adopting biometric fingerprint identification technology.

Beginning in the early 2000s, the National Institute of Justice began testing the use of biometrics at the United States Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The cutting-edge project was a joint effort of the NIJ, the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, the Naval Consolidated Brig and the U.S. Department of Defense Biometrics Management Office. A host of biometric methods – iris, facial, retinal, hand geometry, voice and fingerprint – were evaluated at the brig during the three-year study. All were found to have advantages and disadvantages.

The NIJ said in a 2006 report about the study that “in the end, the fingerprint recognition method, now used in conjunction with hand geometry, was judged to work best at the Charleston brig. It provided the most accurate and reliable matches at about one-third the cost of iris, facial and retinal methods. The fingerprint method also moved prisoners through the gates faster than the others. That’s a prime consideration when, for example, corrections specialists are moving 50 or more prisoners at once from housing or work areas to the galley at mealtime. Fingerprint readers were also easier to use and more durable than other readers.”

Ten years after that study was released, the conclusions gleaned from the research have become more commonly known throughout the corrections industry, as many facilities have already implemented some form of biometrics for inmate identification. In these facilities, once an individual’s electronic fingerprint is scanned, it is attached to that inmate’s in-custody records so that any time a CO or other correctional employee has a need to verify that person’s identity, the information is at their fingertips (pun very much intended) in the facility database.

Biometrics on the horizon

It is well within the realm of possibility that as correctional facilities increasingly adopt biometrics for inmate identification, they will also see the benefits of using this technology to increase the security of the facility in the area of employee access. High-security facilities in both the private and public sectors have used biometric technology – iris scanning in particular – to ensure that only authorized employees are granted access to the most-well-protected areas.

It is completely feasible that in the correctional facility of the future there will be no passwords on the computers. It will be entirely biometric. Further, the authentication for movement within a facility may no longer involve ID cards and badges, but eye scans and voice recognition.

It’s clear that biometrics will continue to make inroads in myriad ways. Fingerprint scanning is probably the most widely used biometric tool in the correctional environment at present, but prisons and jails of the future are almost certainly going to utilize other methods of biometric identification, including facial recognition, iris scanning, hand geometry and voice recognition.

It will be interesting to see the profession’s adoption of this technology in 10 years and in the decades that follow.

Doug Wyllie is a senior contributor for Corrections1, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug hosts PoliceOne’s Policing Matters podcast.

Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie.