High-tech prisons: latest technologies drive cost savings and staff efficiencies.

Author:Goodale, Jeff

Compared with five years ago, emerging prison technologies are not only better and more reliable, they are cheaper. Innovations such as touch-screen access control, nonlethal fencing and digital video offer substantial savings in staffing costs and operations. Fewer escapes and drastic reductions in contraband are difficult to quantify but contribute to overall safety and lower liability.


During the past 25 years, widespread use of technology in correctional facilities has not been the norm. In the early 1980s, prisons and jails may have employed a smattering of cameras, but it was rare for facilities to be technology-driven. That all changed in the mid to late 1990s. Cameras, for instance, became significantly less costly and maintenance also became less of an issue. In fact, during the past five to eight years, the price of video systems has come down as much as 40 percent due to decreases in cost of hardware. A 1,000-bed system that once cost $750,000 may now cost less than $500,000.

At the same time, digital video recording capabilities have grown rapidly; the latest recorders can store more information in less space and for less money. While the cost of digital has not reached parity with analog, it is likely to offer more for less than analog in the next few years. Digital video is just gaining its footing in corrections applications, and its advantages are clear. Formerly, correctional staff had to change a videotape every few hours, but storage capacity on optical discs has gone from hours to days. In the past, video cameras cycled, omitting frames. Optical discs record continuously, providing a more complete record. Image data are also more stable and easier to survey. One person can monitor 16 images at once on a large split screen. Miniaturization has also aided in the ability to hide the lenses, thus protecting the facility's investment and serving as unobtrusively as possible to glean information.

Illinois Department of Corrections And Video Surveillance

Continuously recording inmate visitations has proved invaluable to the Illinois Department of Corrections. When visitors or offenders are caught with contraband following a visit, a quick rewind or track scan provides evidence of the occurrence and smooths over potential legalities. Several adult facilities in the Illinois system are equipped with a full contingent of digital equipment. However, it seems that facilities initially fall into the trap of desiring an overabundance of cameras, upwards of perhaps 100 in a single medium-sized facility. But having so many cameras can be an extravagance. This may translate into technology overload. If a facility has...

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