RFID Reforms Prison Management

By Admin

An inmate-tracking system being used at a California prison warns of a potential escape. It may also reduce prison violence and safeguard employees.

July 1, 2002 - The inmate population in the United States is now just over 1.4 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. How do prisons keep track of all these criminals? The same way they have for decades: By counting heads five to eight times a day. That means when there is an escape, it often goes undetected until the next head count, which can give the prisoner valuable time to get away.


Calipatria prison

Technology Systems International (TSI), a Scottsdale, Ariz., company founded in 1994, would like to change that by using radio frequency identification to track inmates in real time, providing an early warning when someone attempts to break out. Calipatria State Prison, a maximum-security facility tucked in the desert in the southeast corner of California, has been testing the system since last October. It foiled at least one escape, identified prisoners involved in a riot and provided other benefits.

Here's how the system works. A transmitter, which looks like a large industrial wristwatch, is strapped to the wrist of each of Calipatria's 325 level-one (low-security) inmates. The device holds a 900 MHz RFID transmitter with a battery that sends out a signal every couple of seconds. The transmitter is housed in a tamperproof casing and strapped with screws with tamper-resistant covers. If the band is cut or a prisoner manages to slide the band off, an alarm is automatically triggered at a central monitoring station.

Readers with antennas are set up around the prison yard and throughout the interior of the building. Calipatria has about 60 readers, which pick up signals from every transmitter in the facility. At least three readers may pick up a signal from each inmate, but its usually many more to provide redundancy in the system. The signals are sent to a collector node, which calculates the person's location to within a few feet and puts a time of arrival stamp on the information and forwards it to computers running TSI's control software, which is used to establish the conditions for alerts. The system can handle up to 24,000 units, according to TSI. The readers can process hundreds of signals virtually simultaneous, because the signals are transmitted up so quickly.

Prisons set up the system to alert the central station monitor when inmates leave their authorized area, which is scheduled by time. That prevents them from orchestrating escapes or other crimes within the prison. Escapes are normally detected when the inmate removes or destroys his tag, which sets of an alert either instantly, or within one minute.

The software can be programmed to alert the central station when an inmate wanders into an area where he doesn't belong, or when he fails to return from a furlough at the appropriate time. If a prison has a problem with gangs, the system can send out an alert when two members from rival gangs come within, say, 15 feet of one another. Male and female prisoners can be kept apart this way as well.

Each correctional officer also wears a transmitter, which looks like a pager with a big red emergency button in it, strapped to his or her belt. If a guard feels threatened by inmates, he can push the button on his transmitter. The system immediately identifies the guard and his location. It also identifies the 20 inmates closest to him and the closest officers who can respond, so help can be dispatched.

The system tracks the movements of everyone in real time, so if the guard is taken to another area, prison officials can see exactly he is and which prisoners are holding him. "The system takes away the veil of secrecy and gives power back to the guards," says TSI President Greg Oester.


TSI's Prism system records the location of every inmate every two seconds. That information is stored for as long as the prison wants to store it for possible future investigation. Calipatria has had several incidents in which prisoners tried to rise up. After the guards regained control, the system was quickly able to identify the prisoners involved and take disciplinary action.


Inmate wristband

The system also assisted in the recapture of a prisoner who escaped. TSI began testing the system in the prison in 1998. There were problems with the wristbands and the casings and some bugs in the software that caused false alerts. Those were worked out and the system was installed in August of 1999. Just six months later, an inmate cut his wristband off and placed it around a hot cup of coffee, thinking the coffee would fool the temperature sensor in the unit.

What the inmate didn't know was that just cutting the band signaled an alert. The inmate had enough time to make his way out of the facility (since this is a low-security prison, escapes are called "walk-aways"). But the control room was alerted that the band had been cut. A correctional officer was sent to investigate. The prisoner was recaptured within two hours, before he was even a mile from the facility. Two escapes in 1998, prior to the TSI system being installed, weren't discovered until the next count, several hours later.

Calipatria is only using the TSI Prism system in its low-security facility, where inmates live in dorms. The inmates tend to be cooperative because they are nearing the end of their time served, and they don't want to go back to living in a cell. There are only an average of five serious rule violations – violence or drug use -- a month, compared to at least one a day in the level-four area of the prison. But the TSI system may, in part, be responsible for a decline in inmate violence this year. It could have an even bigger impact on facilities with a larger population and a higher security designation.

Typically in a prison, when there is a fight between two inmates or a stabbing, no one talks for fear of reprisals later. Guards usually have to lock down the entire facility to conduct a tedious investigation. "When an inmate gets beat up, invariable everyone says they didn't see anything," says Tim Ochoa, associate warden, business services at Calipatria. "With the TSI system, we go back and see what inmates were around him. That enables us to interview three or four inmates instead of all 325."

TSI's Oester says the system tends to reduce inmate violence and property damage over time because even though inmates aren't told much about the system, they soon learn that it is able to show they were in a particular location at a particular time. Lower violence and property damage means lower operating costs for the prison.

There are other benefits as well. The system can be set up to do meal counts. Each wristband also has a bar code on it. As each prisoner enters the cafeteria, he scans his bar code in front of a reader. If the same prisoner attempts to come back and get a second meal, an alert sounds.

The bar code can also be scanned every time an inmate is given prescription drugs, so the institution knows who got what and when. It can even be tied into the phone system, so prisoners are only able to dial certain numbers based on the unique serial number in their wristband.


The TSI system, like many RFID applications, grew out of military research. In the late 1980s, Motorola began working on a method of tracking soldiers on the battlefield. After the Cold War, budget cuts meant the system was unlikely to be adopted by the military, so Motorola began looking for a way to commercialize the technology.


Guard's "man down" button

Motorola had hired Dr. James Ricketts, the former director of the Arizona Department of corrections, as a consultant. Ricketts had been looking at using RFID to track prisoners and had received several methods and use patents related to the tracking of people in a confined space. When Motorola decided to focus on other business, it sold Rickets the exclusive license to seven Motorola technology patents. Ricketts formed TSI, which was acquired in may by Alanco Technologies.

The company spent six years and $26 million developing the Prism system. Its target market is the approximately 1,400 minimum and medium security state, federal and private prison facilities with over 500 inmates each, which, the company says, represents a $1.5 billion market opportunity.

Like many new technologies, RFID may meet some resistance. Calipatria's Ochoa says officers were initially opposed to the system because they feared their movements would be tracked and the evidence used against them if they were in the wrong place while on duty. The prison agreed not to use data from the system against the staff, and the correctional officers now support expanding the use of the technology.

Some of the prison staff didn't have PC skills so they had to be taught how to use the central monitoring equipment. But Ochoa says the resistance has been overcome and the system is now an asset. "It does what it's supposed to do," he says. "It alerted us a lot sooner when we had the last walk-away. I would be interesting to see it tried in a level-four facility to see how it works there."

TSI has already sold the system to two prisons in Michigan and it late may it announced a $3 million contract with an unidentified prison. But the slowing economy has reduced state revenue and put the squeeze on budgets, which will make it harder for prisons to commit to buying new technology. A typical installation can cost more than a million dollars.

TSI's Oester says the system usually cost less than $1 per day per prisoner, amortized over a five-year period. The cost savings from reduced violence and property damage can help offset the initial investment. And a single breakout can cost the prison system millions of dollars because it has to hire outside resources to track escapees. "If this system prevents one breakout," says Oester, "it more than pays for itself."