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Are prisons an IoT breeding ground?

When we think of prisons, we think of antiquated buildings with equally medieval infrastructure, and we cannot imagine technology playing a part in how prisons are run and how inmates engage with the world. However, there are a number of initiatives underway which might surprise you.

IoT in today’s prisons

An article in the Economist explained that 12% of all prisons have video calling between inmates and their loved ones, but it comes at a price: $30 for 20 minutes. Seventy-four percent of those prisons have banned face-to-face contact, forcing the use of video calls, even if the relative is actually in the building. There are many communications and technology providers focusing on the prison system including Securus, HomeWAV, TurnKey Corrections, GTL and JPay, a company that offers tablets to inmates along with free Khan Academy learning. A Fast Company article discussed how the U.S. Department of Corrections has created an environment where companies like JPay can profit from hard-up families, and the DoC takes its cut of the revenues too, as explained in The New York Times. So, driven by the need to charge for communications, prisons are most definitely now connected to the internet.

What technology brings to prisons

There are some benefits to having IoT in prisons. An article in OZY explained how GE invented a sensor for prison cells that monitors an inmate’s heart rate, breathing and movements and alerts officers when the inmate may be trying to attempt suicide. Digital Trends reported in 2012 that robot prison guards have been deployed in South Korea, but at $879,000 per robot, they won’t be replacing human guards anytime soon.

There has been a lot of publicity about how drones are being used to smuggle drugs into prisons, but drones are also being used by prisons to perform silent stealth surveillance of prison buildings and grounds.

According to an article by PEW Trusts, Texas prisons are widely deploying telehealth to remotely diagnose and treat inmates, reducing risks for doctors and reducing the costs of transporting prisoners that need to see a doctor. The articles extolled the many benefits of ihealth in prisons.

Black Creek’s TSI Prism is the first RFID tracking system designed especially for the corrections system. M2SYS, a major provider of biometric technology, wrote on its website:

Working with jail management software systems at correctional facilities throughout the U.S., M2SYS Technology registers and identifies millions of inmates and facility visitors each year with biometric fingerprint identification technology. Thousands of M2SYS biometric hardware devices capture millions of inmate identities each day during booking, medication distribution, location tracking and again prior to release. Critical to ensuring public safety, M2SYS’ biometric inmate identification solutions often times will prevent over-populated and under-staffed jails from releasing unauthorized inmates due to human error or to inmates swapping ID bracelets with other inmates. Inmate whereabouts can be determined at any time, which increases inmate accountability and in turn, increases overall jail and public security and safety.

An International Business Time article talked about the widespread use of GPS ankle bracelets for convicted felons that are allowed to live at home in return for wearing an electronic tag (another great use case of IoT in the prison system), but the article highlighted the fact that many states actually charge the convicts to rent their tag, which I guess leads us all the way back to where we began: that IoT in the correctional system is a profit opportunity as well as a way of improving efficiency, inmate safety and the overall cost-effectiveness of prisons.

The connected prison has its drawbacks though. A Gemalto article explained how a prison’s programmable logic controllers were hacked from the outside, causing all cell doors to open and causing the escape of a notorious felon. And so, IoT in prisons is a lot like IoT in the outside world: tons of benefits, but tons of risk to go along with it.

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