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Jail to Test RFID-Managed Phones

At a Texas correctional facility, inmates will use RFID wristbands to access the phone system and pay for calls.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 18, 2005AGM Telecom, a prison telephony service provider, is piloting a telephone system utilizing RFID wristbands that inmates must wear to place phone calls. The 90-day pilot—set to launch in December at the Franklin County Jail in Mount Vernon, Texas—will test whether the RFID tracking method is sufficient to replace the existing phone debit card prepaid system. The debit card system—as it operates today in many American correctional institutions—allows an inmate to buy phone time on a card and use it with a PIN number to place calls out of the facility. Problems arise, however, when other inmates use or steal the card.

In this pilot, each inmate will receive an RFID-enabled wristband allowing the AGM Telecom system to calculate how much money he has in his account to place calls. It will also determine whether he is permitted to place the particular call he is attempting to make. Some inmates, for example, are denied phone calls to specific numbers.

AGM Telecom CEO George McNitt
AGM Telecom will use wristbands manufactured by AirGATE Technologies, located in Allen, Texas. Embedded in each wristband is a passive 13.5 MHz RFID tag based on the ISO 15693 standard, with an antenna wrapped around the entire wrist to prevent it from being cut and reused by another inmate, since cutting the antenna would make the tag inoperable. AGM is using about 200 waterproof wristbands for the pilot, as well as AirGATE software to connect the RFID system to AGM Telecom’s database. AirGATE is also providing about 20 RFID tag interrogators (readers), says Ivan Chow, AirGATE’s vice president of software solutions. The readers will be installed under the phone and measure about 2 by 2 inches or less, Chow estimates, with a read range of up to 6 inches.

To operate the phone, an inmate will wave his wristband near a heavy plastic box holding the interrogator and its antenna. The AGM database will then match the wristband number with the inmate’s name and the phone call authorization and account information associated with that name. AGM will then either block the call or allow it to proceed. The system requires that an inmate keep his wristband within read range of the interrogator throughout the call, says AGM Telecom CEO George McNitt. That way, inmates will be unable to present their own wristband to a reader being used by another inmate.

One of the pilot’s goals, says Chow, is to determine the equipment’s durability. Based on how well the wristbands and interrogators operate for the inmates, AirGATE might make protective modifications. If the system works as planned, McNitt says, it will improve phone call management for prison officials by eliminating the need for a debit card and PIN number, and by guaranteeing caller identity. “It gives the facility a way to make sure the inmate is the inmate,” McNitt says. This is the first RFID system of its type in use, as far as AGM knows.

“Once a prison gets used to RFID, it’s not just for phone calls,” Chow says. He points out that the wristbands could also be integrated with other functions, such as snack purchases. In addition, McNitt adds that his prison officials have shown a lot of interest in in-take and release scanning. In such scenarios, an RFID reader or bar code reader would read an inmate’s wristband whenever he entered or left the facility. McNitt says the phone calling system could be integrated with this type of an identification wristband.
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