Under constant watch

Real-time tracking and mapping in corrections allows management to better survey and protect

     Oester also points out that though it tracks convicted offenders, TSI Prism differs from house arrest tracking devices. While house arrest technology is applied to one individual monitored by a telephone receiver, TSI Prism tracks multiple hundreds of individuals simultaneously, with a data vision of where each transmitter is every other second of every day. Should a house arrestee get a certain distance away from his telephone, the system would go into alarm. Or in the case of a global positioning system (GPS) monitoring an offender at home, once he has gotten out of range, it doesn't know where he is, Oester explains. TSI Prism has a defined perimeter in a secured area, so elopements can be tracked, but daily activity and whereabouts are of greater utility because they provide the subject's actual pathway of movement as it happens. For investigating incidents within prison walls, the system can retrace an inmate's every step, recreate any event that was recorded and depict it on screen.

The pros of tracking

     Having the capability to identify facility inhabitants' locations in real time has its benefits, say correctional industry authorities.

     TSI boasts the system can offer staffing efficiency, inmate management, perimeter security enhancement and an additional security component for staff. No violent incidents have taken place since installation, but Osborne recalls other events in his career that may have been avoidable with this technology.

     A 35-year veteran of corrections, Osborne remembers a violent incident that took place prior to installing RFID tracking. He says an inmate assaulted a staff member in the facility, and the victim required medical treatment as a result. "With this device, there's no doubt in my mind that [the assault] could have been prevented," he says.

     Osborne explains that Marion does not have as high a rate of violence as some of the other correctional facilities in Virginia because it houses inmates that are in treatment for mental illnesses. Osborne says one of the reasons his facility was chosen to pilot the program was its reduced size and rate of violence. Though there have not been any incidents of violence thwarted by TSI Prism, Osborne relays that the presence of the technology and the knowledge of its capabilities is enough to deter detainees in Marion.

     "It functions very much like a camera in a department store for shoplifters," Osborne says. "Knowing that they can be tracked, [inmates are] less likely to become involved in any group activity that might result in someone being assaulted because we can determine if they were involved."

     Another system benefit is the added communication avenue that the devices provide, Osborne says.

     "It's always been a concern of mine that if a group of inmates wanted to take an officer hostage, they could grab the two-way radio and the officer would be without any communication," Osborne explains. The system's panic button serves as a backup communication device, helping management rest a bit easier.

The cons

     However, authorities allow that some weight rests on the con side of RFID usage in person-tracking. Cost and current budgeting conditions, as well as staff resistance contribute to industry reluctance, experts say.

     Thomas Keller, vice president and senior consultant of TEECOM Design Group, a firm which designs modern correctional facilities, says the company has recently looked into RFID tracking as a security element in a current California project that involves construction of seven prisoner health care facilities. Keller, who has 20 years experience in the industry, says the roots of his reservations in RFID usage lay in system requirements, combined with reluctance from clients weary of new technology. He says wireless coverage must be extensive to pinpoint accurate transmitter locations, and workflow efficiencies that RFID can provide are "sometimes not what organizations are striving for."

     TEECOM's perspective on RFID concerns is not unique. Oester relays that TSI Prism, with all of its protective capabilities, could pay for itself in 3.5 years. If this is the case, what's keeping more facilities from jumping on the bandwagon?

     "Our experience is that corrections administration is risk adverse," Oester says. "When new technology comes out, it's often preferable for somebody else to be the first adopters. After the technology is established and proven, [which] takes years, adoption of anything new accelerates."

     Oester also says a delaying factor in adoption is working the cost into an agency's budget. Most corrections budgets are never fully funded — there's always a need for more money, he says. In some cases a warden has a choice between fixing perimeter fences and leaky roofs as opposed to buying the latest technology. "It's one of those priority issues that have to be dealt with by each agency," he says.

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