Making Prisons Safer through Technology

By Hart, Sarah V. | Corrections Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Making Prisons Safer through Technology

Hart, Sarah V., Corrections Today

As the U.S. Department of Justice's research, development and evaluation agency, the mission of the National Institute of Justice is to use science and technology to improve the nation's criminal justice system. For more than 30 years, NIJ has developed partnerships with state and local agencies and practitioners to address the needs of the criminal justice field.

NIJ responds to the needs of the criminal justice community by funding science and technology initiatives aimed at practical problem-solving. NIJ applies technology to improve the safety and effectiveness of the nation's prisons and jails, realizing that technology can greatly improve how state and local criminal justice systems, including the correctional system, operate.

A clear and overriding concern of those in the criminal justice field is the safety of correctional officers and inmates. In its report, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2001, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 1990, states reported 10,731 assaults by inmates on prison staff. By 1995, that number had risen to 14,165, resulting in 14 employee deaths. Not only did the number of assaults increase, but the severity of these assaults also worsened. Many of the weapons used were handcrafted by inmates, routinely from items readily available to inmates, such as locks, athletic equipment, toothbrushes, razors, combs, writing instruments and toiletries.

In response, NIJ has supported research and development projects that produce practical solutions to enhance prison and jail safety. Safer environments will not only benefit correctional officers and other staff, but also inmates, who are frequently the primary target of prison assaults. In addition, safer prisons and jails are a wise financial investment, as the nation's taxpayers ultimately pay the cost of assaults through increased medical costs, missed time by injured officers and inmate lawsuits.

A Unique Approach

The best way to improve safety for correctional officers, staff and inmates is to reduce the number of weapons in prisons and jails. For decades, correctional staff have addressed this by looking for and confiscating these weapons. Although an obvious solution, this is an endless task with limited returns. While weapons are discovered and confiscated on a regular basis, replacement weapons are typically not far behind. This ongoing cycle is underscored by statistics that point to continued violence and a need to consider alternative methods.

While weapons confiscation is essential, one additional innovative approach is to make the production of these handcrafted devices more difficult, if not impossible. This approach has sparked interest in the field and at NIJ, and has led NIJ to partner with Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on a project to eliminate the production of these devices. The project, Improving Correctional Officer Safety: Reducing Inmate Weapons Initiative, has great potential and is an example of NIJ's broader approach to using science and technology to benefit the nation's criminal justice system.

To begin this effort, APL will determine the nature, quantity, frequency and severity of attacks within prisons in order to provide information on the design and material composition of items that are commonly used in prison assaults. Using this information and working with NIJ, APL researchers will try to determine if there are alternative materials or manufacturing processes with which to produce items commonly found within prisons to make it difficult or impossible for inmates to fashion weapons.

NIJ will receive several prototypes that may be able to resist weapons adaptation. These prototypes will be evaluated for feasibility, cost, ease of manufacture and implementation issues. Throughout this research effort, NIJ will work closely with corrections professionals. The institute will convene a working group of officers and administrative staff from prisons and jails to help guide the project and ensure that it meets the needs of the corrections community and that any solutions produced are practical.

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