Jail Tech: Phones, Tablets, and Software Behind Bars

You've just been arrested for the first time. You're sent to a holding facility where you'll be detained until it's your turn to stand before a judge. As you enter the facility, your iris is scanned and stored in the facility's database. This is how you'll gain access to every room for the duration of your detainment; it's also how guards will make sure you are who you say you are as you're moved from facility to facility. A bracelet is strapped to your wrist in order to continuously monitor your biometrics—have you been fed, have you taken your medication, is your heart rate accelerating, are you breathing? You're strapped into boots with magnetic strips that can be remotely latched to the floor by a corrections officer who is charged with monitoring your comings and goings. A metal collar is wrapped around your neck. This collar has only one job: If you leave the facility without permission, the collar explodes.

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Like much of the rhetoric surrounding incarceration, the scenario I just described is a combination of hyperbole and fiction. Thanks to Hollywood and science fiction it's easy to imagine detention centers, prisons, and jails running the most advanced technologies known to humanity. In reality, most prisons are run on a simple combination of software, hardware, paper, and pen, nearly all of which require manual data entry.

"There's a lot of hesitancy to provide technology to people in prisons," said Christopher Grewe, CEO and Founder of American Prison Data Systems

The problem with technological hesitancy as it pertains to detention is that the prison population in the United States has exploded in recent decades. The US currently incarcerates 707 people per 100,000 residents, or 2.4 million people, which is the highest rate in the world, according to the Center for Economic and Policy ResearchPEW Center5.8 million violent crimes

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    Technology has solved a number of important social issues that affect humanity. Education has become democratized and health information can be distributed to doctors around the world via the internet. Vaccines are delivered via dronespredict earthquakes

    Unfortunately, United States prisons rely on mostly outdated solutions. Many of these are unregulated and operated by engineers who haven't been scrutinized, and some technologies are designed to take advantage of prisoners in order to make money. There are also a select few built to truly help and empower inmates. I spoke to a number of companies that build and maintain prison technology. Much of the technology is understandably focused on real-time inmate tracking and management, but some companies are also creating solutions designed to educate, enrich the lives of, and hopefully rehabilitate prisoners.

    A consistent effort must be made by local, state, and federal govenment to update old technologies, introduce new and innovative technologies, and use these tools to improve the lives of prisoners. This urgency is not just about safety and security, it's also about enriching prisoners' lives inside facilities in order to reduce violence, and to hopefully provide the foundation necessary to ultimately reintroduce ex-convicts to society. As Mike Cornstubble, VP of Technology at Edovo, puts it: "Technology should not be considered contraband."

    Image via Wikipedia Commons. Data via BJS

    On The Inside
    Behind every institution is what's called a Jail Management System (JMS). A JMS is essentially the data repository for prisoners who enter the facility. Think of it like a customer relationship management(CRM) tool, but for prison. The JMS can capture an endless amount of fields, all of which are designed to track, improve the safety of, and manage the health of prisoners. Standard fields like Name, Crime, Past Crimes, Outstanding Warrants, Gang Affiliations, and Release Date are entered into the system as prisoners arrive. Additional fields like Medications, Allergies, Dietary Restrictions, and Medical Conditions are logged to maintain the prisoners' health.

    In order to track the information entered into the JMS, and to make sure protocol is followed by guards, the JMS can interface with tablets and an RFID

    Ken Dalley Jr., President of Guardian RFID

    Guardian RFID can track the standard items I previously mentioned, but it also gives prison managers the ability to log if and when inmates have been given access to the law library, if they've gotten the proper amount of exercise, and if they've been given access to indoor recreational activities. As inmates are led into and out of each area of the facility, their tags are scanned and a record is logged. "If [a corrections facility is] legally in trouble," said Dalley Jr., "paper-based platforms don't help you mitigate risk. Staff can falsify records. Records can get lost."

    The tags, in combination with tablets and the back-end JMS, also provide guards with real-time notifications. Are all inmates accounted for? Are movements being conducted properly? Has an inmate received a medication for which he or she is scheduled? If these actions aren't logged at the proper time, a real-time notification will be sent to the appropriate staffers.

    JMSes are particularly important for monitoring and tracking recidivists. When someone is arrested, the offender's entire institutional history can be delivered via the JMS, especially if the jail is tied to the same JMS that is being used by additional facilities. Does the prisoner have an issue with any other prisoners in the facility? Has he been targeted by a gang that has a presence in the facility? This kind of information can help to properly and safely place new inmates within the facility.

    "One of the things you have to realize about a jail is that the business is restricted by the wall of the jails," said Bob Kolysher, Product Manager for Tyler Technologies Jail Manager

    Unfortunately, the United States doesn't have the kind of expansive JMS ecosystem that would allow for this kind of record-keeping to span every facility. Records are typically shared only by facilities using the same JMS, or because local regulation requires record sharing between institutions.

    "The biggest reason [you don't see this kind of national network of data] is that there is not a single decision-maker," Kolysher explained. "The sheriff is an elected official in many jurisdictions. He's got the budget and the authority to determine what [system is] good for him. The police commissioner may be doing something else. Building one giant system that meets everyone's needs is tough to do. It's much more likely to be successful to build small systems that connect to one another, to customize each piece to the needs of its constituents."

    Security Protocols (and Lack Thereof)
    The same inability to connect local, regional, and state-wide systems prevents the kind of national scrutiny required to oversee who manages the technology and the sensitive data it's storing. Most corrections officers and police officials are given thorough background checks and mental health screenings prior to working in a facility. The original technologists who install JMSes and other forms of prison-specific technologies within an institution are also given a background check. However, the same regulatory oversight isn't extended to those engineers who have retroactive access to the data these systems create.

    Miro Macho, President of BIS Computer Solutions "If I don't tell [the institution that] this guy [in my company] is working on the system, and he gets access to the system because I needed him to fix a problem, that kind of thing could turn into a big problem. We do our best trying to figure out who our people should be. But any company or government agency doesn't know who is who. A lot of people could play nice for years and they're waiting to blow up something. In the future somebody could slip through and [use the information in our systems for nefarious purposes]."

    Dalley Jr. said his company is required to be Criminal Justice Information Systems Certified

    Even if we are to believe the self-audits are 100 percent truthful, there's still the possibility of a Trojan Horse. Somewhere within the vendor company, someone who has passed a background check and has all of the appropriate IT certifications may aim to do harm with the data he or she can access.

    "We do our own screening and background checks as well," said Dalley Jr. "But there's no regulatory requirement and it's based on internal oversight within my company. Homeland Security and the government do not audit employees of public safety software."

    The New York State Office of Information Technology ServicesNew Jersey Office of Information TechnologyConnecticut Department of Correction

    Help from The Outside
    Companies like APDS and EdovoUnited States Military Standardmobile device management

    In order to deliver on safety, the tablets can't be physically damaged. If they're disabled or shocked via physical drop, an alert is sent to prison staff. The devices never connect to public Wi-Fi, and all of the content on the devices has been pre-approved by prison staff. Edovo offers a tablet-based education and entertainment package via tablet.

    "We see wardens and sheriffs reaching out to us because it's working," said Edovo's Cornstubble. "They're seeing the benefit from an engagement perspective and a reduction in violence because a population is working toward something and not just wasting time."

    Grewe, of APDS, said he believes the tablets his company provides to institutions are not only decreasing violence, but they're also changing lives. APDS tablets are in all kinds of correctional facilities, from juvenile detention centers for young girls to Riker's Island in New York City.

    "Violence in jails is caused by idleness and hopelessness," he said. "But [the argument has always been] why give a tablet to an incarcerated person when kids in school don't have technology? Now, it's not a luxury, it's a necessity. We've seen a very significant decrease in acts of violence in all of the institutions where we've been."

    A Rock and a Hard Place
    Unfortunately, even the systems in place to give inmates access to tablets can be exploited. Unlike APDS, which earns its money only from institutional payments, companies like Edovo and GTL

    "GTL has little to nothing to do with education, and life improvement," said Grewe. "They want to be iTunes for inmates, but instead of 99 cents a song it will be something like $1.99."

    Brian Peters, Executive Director for Enhanced Services at GTL, refused to disclose how much a typical song on a GTL tablet would cost an inmate. There is no indication GTL is exploitive, and because I don't know how much they charge for their services there's no way to know if they're taking advantage of an unregulated system. GTL does have a one out of five stars rating with ConsumerAffairs

    New FCC regulation$14 a minute or $500 a month

    Sadly, regulation of this nature doesn't exist yet for inmate tablets and apps. Combined with the lack of oversight into who can access prisoner data from the back-end of a JMS, the lack of regulation over funding prisoner-held devices is disconcerting. However, if the United States prison system is ever going to move from pen, paper, and database to biometrics, education-based digital hardware, and a national ecosystem of data, government agencies will have to continue to warm up to new technologies.

    "Technology has not been adopted in the space because the first adopters were exploitive," said Grewe. "And technology has never been a core competency for government and the correctional space. That's changing a bit now."

    It's imperative that correctional facilities, government agencies, and technology manufacturers unite in adopting and improving these new solutions in order to better the lives of guards, prisoners, and society alike. Equally importantly, these institutions must all work together to ensure that neither the technology nor the prisoners are exploited in the process.

    This article originally appearedPCMag.com