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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
Sep 13, 2010A study conducted by nonprofit research organization RAND Corp. has found that RFID deployments in correctional facilities require considerable customization to each prison's unique needs and infrastructure. According to the report, failure to properly anticipate infrastructure installation challenges, as well as the need for proper funding and training for staff members, can delay installations or render the system ineffective. The study, titled "Tracking Inmates and Locating Staff with Active Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID): Early Lessons Learned in One U.S. Correctional Facility," was conducted by the RAND Corp., with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice (NIJ) division. Researchers took a two-pronged approach: determining how many RFID installations were actually in use in U.S. prisons, and studying the installation process in one correctional institution.

Laura Hickman, a Rand Corp. adjunct behavioral scientist and a coauthor of the RFID prison report
The study, posted this summer on the Web site of the DOJ's National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), follows a previous NIJ-sponsored study, "Evaluating the Use of Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) Technology to Prevent and Investigate Sexual Assaults in a Correctional Setting." Published in October 2009 by the Urban Institute, that study examined the use of RFID at the Northeast Pre-Release Center (NEPRC), a dormitory-style prison located in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as the technology's impact on inmates' behavior, such as whether it prevented instances of assault, theft or other prohibited acts.

The study found that because the system had experienced technical difficulties during the year following its installation, and because the staff had been insufficiently trained in the solution's use, it was ineffective in deterring prohibited behavior. And while NEPRC employed the RFID data to some degree during investigations of incidents that occurred at the prison, the Urban Institute's researchers determined that RFID evidence did not reduce the number of cases closed due to insufficient evidence.

Those problems have since been rectified, however, says Sean Bannerman, an NEPRC corrections officer who manages the system. With direct assistance from the system's provider, Elmo-Tech, and several years of maintenance and "fine-tuning," the system now enables Bannerman and his fellow officers to know where every inmate or staff member is and has been on the campus at any given time.

When it comes to RFID-enabled people-tracking installations in prisons nationwide, RAND researchers found—through Internet research and speaking with vendors—that there were 14 such systems installed by 2009, all of which were provided by either TSI Prism or Elmo-Tech. Three were used to track employees, five to track inmates and six to track both.

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