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Prison RFID Study Finds Planning Is Critical

A study from the RAND Corp. cites insufficient planning and training as major challenges for prison installations of RFID—but when installed and used properly, the technology can reduce violence and provide other benefits.
By Claire Swedberg
The RAND study focused on the Central Detention Facility (CDF), operated by the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections (DC DOC). The researchers followed the installation process, observing multiple unexpected changes based on the building's structure and the prison officials' requests. The various ways in which the system needed to be used made the installation more challenging. "What appeared to us is that this is not a technology you can take out of a box and expect it to work," says Laura Hickman, the study's coauthor, a RAND adjunct behavioral scientist and the associate director of Portland State University's Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute.

CDF had been seeking an RFID solution that would help the facility track the locations of 1,900 inmates, as well as assist in finding the closest of the prison's 700 officers in the event of an emergency. Soon after DC DOC officials selected a vendor in June 2008, the process of planning and installing the system began, lasting until late summer 2009.

Approximately 12 months after the department had signed a contract with the system's provider, TSI Prism, researchers visited the site, at which time the actual installation of software and equipment had been well underway.

The system includes a tamper-resistant wrist or ankle band containing a 915 MHz active RFID tag that transmits a unique ID number every two seconds. Such a bracelet was provided to each inmate during the jail-booking process, the ID number of which was linked to each specific inmate in the RFID system software, which shared data with the jail's information-management system. The bracelet locks around the inmate's ankle or wrist so that any attempt to remove it will cause the transponder to transmit an alert. The band is removed from each inmate upon discharge. Each correctional officer would also be required to wear an RFID tag on his belt, to identify that individual's location and to send alerts in the case of an emergency.

The facility built its own correctional surveillance center, where CDF's staff could monitor the RFID system, along with the jail's closed-circuit television surveillance network and any telephone calls the prisoners made using the prison's telecommunications system. The cost was $3.3 million to install the TSI Prism system, as well as $42,000 for staff training and $60,000 in overtime expenses. Maintenance and support for the system are expected to cost $194,000 annually. RFID readers were installed in the 18 housing units in such a way as to provide full coverage of the entire area. CDF's representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The design phase took longer than anticipated, Hickman says, due to the variety of construction materials and floor-space layouts of the facility's 18 housing units, which were constructed at various times. In addition, CDF had been seeking location granularity within 2 to 5 feet indoors (and within 10 to 15 feet outdoors). Because the initial design did not meet that level of accuracy, a series of tests and modifications were required. According to the study, these types of delays could have been avoided, in part, if prison officials had clearly identified their objectives and expressed them to TSI Prism beforehand.

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