Under constant watch

     "The future is history …"

     But for this article's purpose, not in the apocalyptic sense of the quote. The concept, borrowed from a dystopian sci-fi flick, is ever pertinent when it comes to the 21st century and technology. Each time a new technology is applied in law enforcement and related fields, conceptions of applicant are altered to fit the new future.

     The film referenced in this article's opening, 1996's "12 Monkeys," stars Bruce Willis as the protagonist from the future who is tracked between time continuums by a microchip implanted in his flesh.

     In correctional realities, time-travel tracking is moot. But the ability to trace individuals housed inside a secured facility has its safety advantages, say RFID authorities and corrections vets.

     Alanco Technologies makes a real-time tracking technology for corrections, TSI Prism, which includes radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and software that tracks the whereabouts of individuals within a facility 24/7.

Tracking people in real time

     To separate the modern from future-fiction stories, the TSI Prism system from Arizona-based Alanco keeps inmate tracking above the epidermis. The system is coordinated with a variety of components that track both guards and inmates, which include transmitters, antennae receivers and a computer network that follows real-time locations of its charges.

     Inmates wear a transmitter on their wrists that is secured by a tamper-detecting bracelet. Officers wear a transmitter on their utility belts. Both transmitters traject a unique RFID code that identifies the wearer in the database every 2 seconds.

     Nine-year president of TSI Prism, Greg Oester, explains the signals from transmitters are collected by an array of antennas throughout the prison facilities. A supervising computer system captures all of the data and determines, based on a time of arrival triangulation methodology, where each transmitter is at each 2-second transmission.

     "This gives us the ability to know exactly where everyone is at any given time, who they may be associating with — other inmates or staff in the area — and then we archive that data so we can go back in the database to investigate incidents," Oester says.

     The system can create an alarm if an inmate enters a restricted area. Other restrictions can be tailored according to facility, perimeter and inmate privilege. Certain inmates or all inmates can be excluded from leaving their housing area, for example, or opposing gang members can be electronically separated by producing a warning if they get too close.

     "Historically, every time we put a system into a prison, inmate violence is reduced simply because inmates cannot deny their presence at certain events," Oester says. "Once they learn they're being tracked, they just don't do things that they might ordinarily do."

MCTC experience

     TSI Prism was launched eight years ago and is now in use in six adult and three juvenile facilities, with three integrations under construction, including the company's biggest project, a Washington, D.C., jail housing 2,500 inmates.

     In Marion, Virginia, a correctional treatment facility has been applying the surveillance technique for nearly three years.

     Marion Correctional Treatment Center is a special purpose institution that houses and treats convicted mentally-ill male felons from across the state of Virginia. Warden Kenneth Osborne, who has been at MCTC for nearly 17 years, says the center hosts a daily population of about 215 inmates. Osborne has been in charge of the prison since it activated TSI Prism in May 2006.

     Osborne says the frequency-emitting devices increase officer and inmate safety. Prison guards at Marion also wear an RFID locator, so surveillance can locate the officer nearest an event, making manpower resources more efficient. Detainees are additionally protected because the system can be set to electronically guard vulnerable prisoners, or alert officers if known rivals get too close. Management can then respond to incidents more quickly, or thwart them before they begin, Oester explains.

     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.

     Osborne states when TSI was first installed, he had reservations from a little less than a third of the 239-member staff. "I don't think that [security staff] were intentionally not doing tasks that they were assigned, but they didn't like the idea that if they didn't do it, they could be caught." However, Marion did not lose any employees due to tracking, and today Osborne says the staff accepts the beeper-size unit on their belts as a piece of everyday equipment. Oester says this initial resistance is common, but in most cases, the security benefits outweigh deterrents. "Staff members generally have some natural concerns about the Big Brother aspect of being monitored," Oester admits. "But the overwhelming safety aspect that the system provides has swung the support from staff."

Under constant watch

     When non-fictional sciences find a useful, feasible means to apply technology, we marvel. Compared to the alternative skin-implant solution employed by the fictional wardens in "12 Monkeys," the modern technological solution to keep tabs on the incarcerated is far less invasive.

     As Osborne observes, increased safety is one of the greatest benefits of the RFID system in use at Marion. Modern individual tracking technology in corrections makes keeping those confined safe a reality of the present.

After the summons

     Real-time radio frequency identification tracking can help corrections departments keep their charges and staff safe, but passive RFID can aid administrators pre-sentencing. It can be used to track paper files in attorney's offices and follow chain-of-custody in evidence management.

     3M offers an RFID tag solution for file management and to retrieve case files in district attorney's offices. The 3M RFID File Tracking System writes a unique ID number, typically a case file number, to an RFID tag and then that tag is fixed to the file folder. The system also contains a hardware reader pad and a handheld antenna-based system that acquires location. 3M's software application acts as the brains of its solution, interpreting the location of the files and working with file administrators to set up and manage file locations.

     In addition to file tracking, 3M Marketing Manager Erik Johnson says in the past year, 3M has initiated a pilot project through the West Virginia University that establishes an RFID trail at the point of evidence collection in the student lab.

     "[WVU is] out ahead of the curve in terms of pushing the boundaries of evidence tracking," Johnson says.

     The Forensic Science Initiative, a research and training program for forensic scientists, is gathering evidence and initiating the tracking at the point of collection all the way to the point of processing, Johnson says. Because this use is still emerging, he says it's difficult to forecast the direction it will take, but WVU will continue weighing the potential and challenges of the process.

     "Taking the next leap from bar codes to RFID [in evidence collection] can require some additional use cases; right now it's still wait and see," he says. "Extending [RFID use] to evidence is still emerging, so it's really dependent on the willingness from that customer base to demand it."

Hard files in Florida

     Vernon Hills, Illinois-based Zebra Technologies provides a smart-label solution for agencies with large hard-file case loads and can track them quickly without adding burden to the file-making and storage process.

     The solution combines a traditional adhesive label laced with a dormant radio frequency identification tag. The outer surfaces of the labels are printed with text for human readers, and the adhesive side contains a small computer chip and copper antenna for communication with handheld and fixed computer readers. The tags are inactive until they come in the field of electromagnetic radiation, and respond by generating a signal. Greg O'Connell, director of government sales for Zebra, explains that because the tags do not take up much space and they are inert unless called to by the radiation signal, the solution can last for years without taxing space or consumables such as batteries. "The beauty is that because it doesn't involve a battery and it doesn't take up much space, it's perfect for items on the shelf or that are going into storage. Though it may not be ready today, if you need to read it in 50 or 100 years, it's still going to be working."

     Zebra provides a passive RFID label solution for the Florida Office of the State Attorney's 15th Judicial Circuit in West Palm Beach, Florida, to track its 21,000 active felony case files. The hard files at the 15th Judicial Circuit can traverse several offices throughout the four-floor building, and with the system in place, employees are able to locate case files within minutes in most cases, for what O'Connell approximates as about 20 cents per label.

     With asset and evidence tracking, as well as real-time tracking in correctional facilities, RFID can be layered throughout the justice system to be sure cases get a shot at justice, and prosecution and treatment are carried out as flawlessly as possible.