Illinois Technology Improves Security and Reduces Staff in Two Illinois Prisons

Article excerpt

Robert Frost once said, "Good fences make good neighbors." When a family's neighbor is a prison, it wants really good fences. The appropriate use of new technology can enhance the security and capacity of a correctional facility, while at the same time, reduce staff and costs. Such developments are beginning to drive the design of new jails and prisons.

Late last year, Illinois completed construction of its newest maximum-security prison in Thomson and has started construction on a second one in Grayville. These facilities are the first new maximum-security prisons to be built in Illinois in decades. They are each designed to hold 1,600 inmates in single-cell configurations with an additional 200 inmates in a minimum-security unit. The driving design parameter for the projects was the Department of Corrections' stated objective of keeping maximum-security inmates in groups of no more than 50.

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An important aspect of the new design was the perimeter fence. Even with the groups of 50 or fewer inmates, there was concern about maintaining a strong perimeter due to the nature of the maximum-security inmates. Due to the high-risk inmates who will be housed at the Thomson Correctional Center, the original program considered the use of a lethal, electrified perimeter fence. During the design meetings, the concerns over the political and legal issues surrounding the lethal fence systems led the team to consider other options. After extensive research and much debate, the design team selected the nonlethal option.

Nonlethal Versus Lethal Perimeter Fences

Nonlethal electrified fences can offer many advantages, avoiding the controversy of using lethal, electrified perimeter fencing. Concerns about the use of the lethal electrified fence range from the ethics of its use to the legal issues generated if an inmate is killed in an attempt to escape. Public perceptions of this type of fence can be significant. Because a lethal fence does not require any human response or action by a correctional officer, it is seen as being inhumane and indiscriminate. Another ethical issue is the protection of wildlife. Many environmental groups have expressed their disapproval of lethal electrified fences because of their potential to kill birds and other animals. The use of a non-lethal electrified fence can mitigate many of these issues while still providing both a physiological and physical barrier from escapes, as well as intrusion from the outside.

The design of the Thomson and Grayville prisons uses a state-of-the-art, nonlethal perimeter fence. Similar in concept to the handheld stun guns used by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, non-lethal electrified containment fences stop inmates without causing severe harm or death. If an inmate tries to climb or cut through the perimeter fence, he or she will receive a non-lethal jolt of electricity, which causes temporary immobilization. At the same time, the system initiates an alarm to prison staff that an attempt has occurred and identifies its location. These facilities will be two of only a handful of prisons in the United States employing this system.

The nonlethal fence can greatly reduce costs because facilities would not need to build or staff as many watch towers. Depending on the required security level, a facility surrounded with this fence will require fewer towers or none at all. A staffed tower costs about $250,000 per year to operate. Eliminating towers or choosing not to staff them during certain shifts allows a facility to better manage staffing costs.

At the Illinois Maximum-Security Prisons (I-Max), a traditional exterior fence surrounds an interior fence equipped with stun technology. The fence can be designed in several different configurations: The electrified portion can be located on the inside of the fence (on the "no man's" side of the fence), on either side of the interior fence above normal-reach height, or extended above the top of the traditional fence. …