Managing Identities in Corrections
In jails and correctional facilities, identity is, to put it mildly, a big deal. Names, DC numbers, and ID photos follow an inmate throughout their time in the system. But while identity management technologies have seen a huge leap forward in civilian life, identity management in correctional facilities and jails can seem like it’s stuck in the past. Methods of keeping track of an inmate’s identity from arrest through the end of sentence (EOS) date have remained largely unchanged through the years—a tragedy when you realize how many options are out there.
Paper face sheets and physical credential documents are still used for transports, EOS, work release, and outside ground crew authorization—and more. Time after time, we’ve seen that this approach opens the door to potentially huge problems:
But the real issue goes much deeper. While inmates may have been stupid when they broke the law, they aren’t stupid people. Many of them are incredibly smart, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to dream up ways to game the system when you’ve got lots of time to do so. Law-abiding citizens don’t have a monopoly on innovation.
Here’s one example of prison ingenuity: I once caught an inmate attempting to smuggle more than 15 pounds of peanut butter out of foodservice. I wouldn’t have found the stuff had I not done a thorough pat-down, since it was thinly layered between wax paper and wound around his body (torso and legs) with cellophane. Under the clothes, it was totally invisible. The inmate would have enjoyed a tidy sum in traded cigarettes or contraband had the CO in charge of that area been less watchful than I was.
Put simply, inmates are crafty—and frequently malicious. If your identity management system isn’t smart, you’re exposing your facility to enormous liability risk and putting your COs at a disadvantage.
The Pitfalls of Old Identity Management Methods
As a captain at a state corrections facility, I oversaw transports and intakes according to our standard operating procedures. Mondays were intake days. Up to 45 inmates at a time would be lined up and taken through the process throughout the day, including re-inventorying personal property, completing medical screenings and having the classification department interview each inmate.
The entire process began with the corrections bus driver handing me up to 45 files as each inmate lined up single-file as they exited the bus. In the sweltering heat, the officers and I would open each file and look over a face sheet. These images were typically in black and white, and many had been taken years ago. A positive identification of each inmate was required, so we sought to ensure this by asking a random question out of their Department of Corrections (DOC) file. The entire intake process is an enormous undertaking that requires an inordinate amount of time and resources. Because we were dealing with such old-fashioned processes, a large number of prison staff and officers would get tied up with intakes—which meant fewer resources to handle the rest of the facility.
On a normal day at a prison, minimum custody inmates are released to inside and outside grounds. Some prisons have farms, road crews, and construction crews, allowing inmates to go outside of their confinement and complete tasks for the prison or community. It’s absolutely crucial to accurately identify everyone exiting the prison gates and make sure no unauthorized inmates pass into the community. The way it’s usually done? You guessed it—face sheets, paper lists, and physical passes.
It’s routine for inmates to be transported late at night, make emergency medical trips or undergo emergency EOS releases. Corrections officers are diligent and duty-driven by nature, but human error can and does happen. Old, black and white copies of face sheets are often photocopied multiple times, challenging even seasoned officers. In the past 20 years in Florida alone, 6 inmates have been mistakenly released through a con hinging on looks—fathers posing as sons, or vice versa. If there is a strong resemblance and the son is a Jr. (with the same name), making the switch isn’t too difficult.
In all of these situations, the implications for liability are staggering. So, what can be done to improve procedures? How do we bridge the gap of cost versus security? How do we introduce new technology into a system that is routinely budget constrained? As someone with years of experience working in corrections, I think biometrics is the answer.
The Future of Assured Identity in Corrections: Biometrics
Biometrics can modernize inmate identification, eliminating the need for face sheets printed on old copiers. A biometrically-enabled database can prevent accidents and liability events by guaranteeing a positive identity. That father-son trick may work with face sheets, but a fingerprint capture device would never be fooled—period.
Biometrics isn’t new to corrections. In fact, biometric technology has been successfully utilized at various identity confirmation points within the judicial system, with tangible benefits:
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