RFID Tracking Allows Prisons to More Closely Monitor Inmates

By Daniel Casciato

July 11, 2008

RFID inmate tracking technology is making it easier for correctional institutions to curb prison violence, sexual abuse, and potential prison escapes.

One of the nation's largest correctional institutions is spending $3.3 million to install an RFID inmate tracking system to track and monitor over 2,000 of its inmates—making it the largest installation of RFID technology to track and monitor people anywhere in the world.

 

According to the president of the company installing the tracking system, the technology will provide the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) facility with a state-of-the-art investigative tool and safety system for its 450-plus staff.

 

"They approached us because they recognized the value of the technology and enhancing their ability to manage inmates," said Greg M. Oester, president of Alanco/TSI PRISM, Inc.

 

The tracking system, expected to be installed by the end of the year, combines TSI PRISM's RFID Inmate Tracking System with Wi-Fi compatible RTLS technology from AeroScout, Inc.

 

Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alanco/TSI PRISM, Inc., a subsidiary of Alanco Technologies, Inc., pioneered the use of RFID inmate tracking technology in August 2000. Currently, ten prisons throughout the world are using its tracking technology, including facilities in California, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, and Australia. Three others, including the Washington, D.C. DOC, are installing the technology this year.

 

How it works

 

TSI PRISM is comprised of three primary components: tamper detecting tags, readers, and a host computer employing the TSI PRISM software.

 

"Everyone in the prison facility wears a transmitter of one form or another," explained Oester. "The inmates wear a tamper detecting device on the wrist that looks like a large industrial wristwatch. This device sends a beacon every two seconds and has multiple levels of tamper detection. So you can’t remove it. The officers and prison staff wear a transmitter device that looks like a pager on their utility belts and it has multiple levels of duress notifications. So if an officer is attacked or is in trouble in the prison facility, he can push the distress button and we instantly know who he is, where he is and what the threat level is."

 

All of these signals are collected by an array of antennae that have been installed around the prison facility and uses triangulation methodology.

 

"We know precisely where everyone is throughout the facility, so we can identify people by name and their location, who they’re standing next to, and so on," said Oester. "All of this data is archived into a database so we can determine where someone is in about a two-second keystroke. We can also go back into the database and find out where that particular individual was yesterday or two months ago."

 

The greater good

 

Two of the primary benefits of the technology are that it promotes and forces inmate accountability and becomes a strong investigative resource for resolving incidences.

 

"The inmates know that they are being tracked," Oester said. "They know that they can be caught and it can be determined if they were involved in a rules violation. If there’s an incident to be investigated, we can conclusively determine who was in the immediate proximity of the event, which shortens the witness list considerably. It denies inmates the ability to say that they were not at a particular event. We capture them off-screen and it provides staff with a very useful tool to positively and conclusively resolve incidents or participation by inmates in particular incidences." 

 

Another added benefit is the creation of operational savings. RFID technology enables correctional institutions to reduce manual tasks that normally require valuable staff time.

 

"If a particular inmate in a 200-bed facility doesn’t show up for work detail or classroom assignment, it would take a staff person about 30 to 40 minutes to conduct a physical search," said Oester. "With our technology, we know where everyone is with a keystroke. That frees up the staff from mundane search work. It allows them to do drug screening or security sweeps that frequently there’s not enough time in a day to do. It becomes a very comprehensive management tool."

 

Privacy concerns

 

Constant monitoring, of course, means that inmates have even less privacy and freedom of movement than before the RFID system was put in place. Oester’s position is that in a prison environment, an individual’s right to privacy has already been taken away.

 arm through bars - edited.jpg

"They can strip the individual and search them at will," he said. "Prison facilities can utilize cameras in every area of the prison, except perhaps the bathroom or shower area. Our technology is a security enhancement to the facility. We don't actually depict the human body on screen so unlike cameras, we can track an individual into a bathroom or shower area."

 

Bill Covington, a professor of clinical law at the University of Washington Law School, runs The Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic, has no issues with the real-time tracking technology.

 

"I'm hard pressed to see the ethical violations in terms of wanting to know physically where the inmates are located at all times in those facilities," he said.

 

Jeffrey B. Killino, an attorney with the Philadelphia law firm, Woloshin & Killino, P.C., agrees.

 

"From my standpoint, an RFID tag is no more intrusive and no more invasive than a prison uniform or handcuffs or shackles," he said. "It's a tag that they are wearing, whether it's on their arms or legs, and that is completely and ethically appropriate. Like many Americans, I take our right to privacy very seriously, but when you have been convicted of a crime and you are in a prison, I don't see how you have the right to argue this."

 

What will draw the line, according to Killino, is embedding an RFID tag into a human being. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved of an RFID chip that can be implanted in humans for medical purposes.

 

"I don't know if they would ever go that far in our lifetime," said Killino. "That would put you into the argument of cruel and unusual punishment that prisoners typically raise and it's too much of the invasion of the person and privacy by having that tag in there. You'll have people up in arms and there will be a knockdown-drag-out fight should that occur."

 

Oester said that is an unlikely scenario.

 

"It will never happen because it’s a privacy issue," he said. "Injecting a foreign device into a human body is something that can only be done with the consent of the individual and I don’t see that ever taking place on a wholesale basis. There’s no benefit to the inmate and there’s no benefit to the facility. There’s currently a device that would work in this environment anyway and it’s not something that we would attempt to do."

 

One concern that Covington raises is whether the technology is 100 percent effective.

 

"There would be ethical problems if you tell prisoners that they'll be safe, that they won't be beaten or raped, because you have this technology that will allow you to know where they are," he said. "This is a sort of guarantee of safety to the prisoner and their family. I don't know if it's reached the point where we can declare that to them. I don't know where you can have 100 percent accuracy at all times in all situations."

 

However, TSI PRISM utilizes a broadband system for real-time tracking that is more effective than a narrowband system that some companies use. Narrowband systems transmit slower signals and may not track the actual movement reliably.

 

Broadband systems are capable of transmitting fast signals at frequent intervals. At two-second intervals, each transmitter is sending a signal 43,200 times per day. By tracking an inmate in these two-second intervals, the broadband depicts the subject's actual movement along their pathway of travel. Contrast that to a narrowband, which usually transmits every 30 seconds. An inmate can move up to 50 yards, assault someone, and return without being detected.

 

According to the company, several key statistics from correctional institutions using its system prove its effectiveness:

 

·        Incidents of force and violence were reduced by more than 65 percent.

·        Failures to report to job incidents were reduced from 29 to 0.

·        Theft and destruction of state property incidents were reduced by more than 40 percent.

 

"Adoption of this technology is increasing and accelerating," said Oester. "I’m very confident that once this DC installation is completed, it will adequately showcase the value of the technology in a very large, densely populated institution."

Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to writing for Wi-FiPlanet, he writes legal, medical, real estate and technology-related articles for trade and consumer publications and recently launched his own copywriting business. For more information, visit www.danielcasciato.com.  

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