Behind the Bars
Texas Department of Criminal Justice investing big in IP video
- By Jessica L. Clark
- Sep 01, 2013
In today’s economy, it can be difficult for correctional facilities to obtain the
funding needed to upgrade their security technologies. However, a series of
high visibility incidents in Texas in 2008 cast a bright light on the benefits
of video surveillance and the critical need to maintain high-performing systems.
Now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has made a
true commitment to invest in state-of-the-art IP-based video surveillance technology
for security enhancements in prisons.
In 2008, a death row prisoner managed to obtain a cell phone, an item strictly
forbidden to inmates. He used the phone to make threatening phone calls to Texas
State Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Texas Senate committee on Criminal Justice,
as well as to a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, a daily newspaper
in Austin. After working with officials to catch the prisoner using the phone, Whitmire
helped facilitate availability of state funding to install security systems to help
prisons deal more effectively with the issue of contraband.
There are 111 prisons in Texas, housing about 150,000 offenders. While many
facilities have camera systems, more advanced new video surveillance systems have
been installed in four prisons so far—the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Livingston;
the Mark W. Stiles Unit in Beaumont; the Darrington Unit in Rosharon; and the
McConnell Unit in Beeville. New systems are in the process of being installed
at the Connally Unit in Kenedy, and the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, the
state’s largest prison encompassing 20,000 acres and housing more than 4,000 offenders.
Additional new video surveillance systems may be rolled out in the next
five to 10 years in other Texas prisons, contingent upon funding. Video systems
also are being planned for the 20 state jails.
“Video surveillance is not a new concept in the correctional environment, but
technological advances offer opportunities that cannot be ignored to further enhance security, increase staff and offender safety and combat contraband,” said Brad Livingston, TDCJ executive
director. “In my opinion, the comprehensive
video surveillance system in use at several TDCJ facilities
represents an effective application of the latest
technologies and is making a significant contribution
to security and safety.”
Sigma Surveillance (STS), Plano, Texas, is designing
and installing the new systems from end to
end and has also installed a full network infrastructure
as the prisons are not wired for any networked
technology. Fiber-optic cable was installed to every
building on the installations so far, as well as to
every perimeter post and the guard towers.
The new IP-based systems use the Ocularis software
system by OnSSI, together with more than 4,600
Panasonic network cameras systemwide, to capture
detailed video of everything within the prison walls,
making it available to wardens and other prison staff.
Wardens are now accustomed to using the system as
part of their everyday routine and have captured video
of assaults on staff and offenders, as well as other
incidents. The systems allow them to give accolades
to prison staff members who are captured on video
making smart decisions.
The cameras have been used to investigate contraband
such as drugs, cell phones and money drops inside
the prison. The system provides evidence to corroborate
the incidents and have been used to prove
cases in criminal and administrative proceedings.
Simplified interfaces do not take a lot of space
on the monitor screen, and the staff appreciates the
search features, especially the motion searches. On
playback, prison staff can use the “little blue box,” a
feature that enables them to designate a specific area
on the screen and identify on playback when there is
motion within that area. The cameras deployed consist
mostly of vandal-resistant fixed domes. The most
recent installation at the McConnell Unit uses all-HD
cameras, as will future installations. High-quality video
available in virtually any lighting condition delivers
clear and continuous coverage of activities within the
Systems Installed in First Three Prisons
Allan B. Polunsky Unit is a 472-acre maximum-security
prison that houses about 2,900 offenders at a
range of custody levels including maximum security
and Death Row. Originally designed to house 2,250
offenders, the Polunsky unit has been expanded with
the addition of dormitories. The prison encompasses
a total of 19 buildings, including a medical and education
facility with a standard library and a legal library,
a supply warehouse, four general population
chow halls, one officers’ dining room, a laundry room,
an administration building, a maintenance building,
a vocational facility, two gyms that also are used as
chapels, a tree farm and a dog kennel. Security for
the Polunsky Unit includes video coverage of every
building and every walkway, as well as the perimeter.
Aiphone video intercoms are installed on the premises
to provide efficient and easy communications with
the correctional staff.
Richard Alford, senior warden at Polunsky, has
used the video system to monitor and critique his
staff’s response to unit emergencies.
“You get a minute-to-minute response to suicide
attempts and things of that nature,” Alford said.
Such incidents require an administrative review,
and the video provides a valuable tool. Alford also
says the system helps to quickly dismiss false offender
complaints without merit—the video can easily verify
if complaints are unfounded.
Another prison whose video system has been upgraded
is Stiles, which also was originally designed to
accommodate 2,250 offenders and now has additional
dorms to serve a current occupancy around 2,900. Stiles
has about 20 buildings, including a separate chapel.
The Darrington Unit is an old high-security
prison, built in 1930. It is made up of a single building—
in contrast to the multiple buildings and campus
setting of the other units. Darrington houses about
2,000 offenders and uses about 490 cameras.
The advanced video system provides an advantage
for prison wardens to help reduce incidents of contraband,
gang activity and other challenges unique to
a prison environment, while increasing productivity
“When you have a camera and have an incident, you
see what’s happening,” said Brenda Chaney, former
senior warden at the Darrington Unit, who recently
retired. “Without the video you have to do more questioning
and investigative measures to find out what
occurred. There are times when you can’t get to the
bottom of what occurred (without a camera). If
there’s a fight, you want to know who was involved?
When security comes, they spread out, but with a
camera you would see who’s involved. With a camera,
you’ve got them.”
The fourth unit, with installation now complete,
is the McConnell Unit, which is similar in design to
Polunsky, Stiles and the Connally units.
In each installation, the fiber infrastructure
includes a 10-gig backbone
and 1-gig horizontal to smaller network
rooms and user workstations.
Each cable pull has 12 fiber strands,
which allows plenty of dark fiber to
add future bandwidth.
“We were cognizant of the need to facilitate
the future expansion in all areas
of the units to avoid costly expansions
in the future in order to continue to take
advantage of the latest security trends,”
said Jose Garza, CCNP, technical project
manager of STS. “Upgrades will be
simple and an absolute given in the future
course of high security vigilance.”
The fiber runs underground out
to the perimeter and along and inside
buildings, protected by a 4-inch rigid
conduit when necessary. Fiber connects
to six main hubs (network rooms),
which include server storage; there
are 23 intermediate distribution frame
HP ProLiant DL320 servers are
used to run the software, and ProLiant
DL380 servers are used for recording
software and for initial temporary
archives. Each NetDVR server runs
50-plus cameras, which takes a lot of
processing power. The storage array includes
network-attached storage (NAS)
[HPX160, two at each unit] and directattached
storage [HP StorageWorks
D2600 DAS Hard Drive Array and
HP MSA60]. The servers and workstations
are HP, and HP switches are used
throughout the network rooms. Each
unit has 16 servers used as NVRs and
one server. The system can record continuously
for 20 days, 24 hours, seven
days a week, full streaming at all times
with no motion-based recording in order
to document when things don’t happen
as well as when they do. This is a
unique prison need to immediately disprove
a falsely filed complaint against
an officer and reduce the agency’s cost
of lengthy investigations.
PowerDsine mid-span injectors are
used to provide PoE, a less expensive
option than PoE switches.
STS made an extra effort to distribute
video archiving across multiple
servers and NAS attachments for cameras
in each single pod. Cameras in the
same area are archived to different storage
areas to ensure continued redundant
coverage. The approach involved
extra planning up front and attention
to mitigating a possible risk.
In a challenging environment like a
prison unit, TDCJ officials realize that
no one tool is the solution.
“The video surveillance system is
another means at our disposal. We’ll
continue to look to technology, combined
with other security measures, as
a way to enhance the safety and security
of institutions across the state of
Texas,” Livingston said.
How Staff Use the Systems
At each prison, there is a senior warden
and two assistant wardens who have full
rights to view the system in their offices.
Two majors—three at Stiles—have full
rights as well on HP workstations. The
senior warden has a 42-inch screen, and
everyone else has 19-inch monitors on
their desks. A 42-inch monitor is located
in an administrative conference
room; if an event occurs in the unit, the
conference room becomes a command
center with more space for team members
than a single office.
Video monitors also are located at
various “pickets,” which are enclosed locations
protected from intrusion, where
operators can control doors and have
keys to certain areas. The line control
pickets have a 42-inch monitor and have
access to everything on the system except
the ability to export video. In the death
row building at the Polunsky Unit, a
control picket has four 20-inch monitors
to push video, and in one of the pods, a
20-inch monitor has rights to view in cell
cameras. Inside dormitories, each picket
has four 20-inch monitors and has the
master stations for video intercom.
Each workstation is located within
a lock box for security purposes. Operators
can only access the keyboard,
mouse and monitor. There is also no
access to any of the network rooms,
and racks are secured with locks.
Alford uses the system not just as a
reactionary tool but as a proactive tool,
monitoring traffic flow, counting and
search procedures. He sees a continuing
and increasing role for video in training
“If I see someone violating a policy,
I can download the video and take it to
shift turnout and tell them this is not
what we need to do,” Alford said.
Shift turnout is a 30-minute meeting
before a new shift comes to work when
various issues and training are discussed.
Training uses also can extend to the 40
hours of in-service training required
each year. Important points can be illustrated
using video of actual events.
“I can go back and show them, this
is reality, and this is the event in realtime,”
Alford said. “You see how if this
officer was over here, this wouldn’t have
He compares the approach to a
football coach meeting after a game
to make adjustments to offense and
“It can be a positive force in learning.
They are more critical of their own
performance than I am,” Alford said.
“Holding staff accountable can sometimes
be difficult. On a unit this size,
you can’t walk the whole unit. If I don’t
walk in a building in a day, I can still
look at the video to see things I might
not have seen.”
Using Video Surveillance a No Brainer
The system’s ease of use is critical; corrections
officers may not necessarily
be IT experts. The use of maps greatly
simplifies interface with the video system.
Many areas in a prison look the
same, so it is not easy to visualize a
camera’s location. Operators can click
into each building, and all the cameras
will come up, instead of one camera at
a time. It’s a useful tool that makes it
easy for staff to locate the cameras they
are looking for.
The system at Polunsky unit came
online in stages over almost a year, and
officers began using the system as it
became live. Tim Simmons was senior
warden at Polunsky Unit when the system
was installed, but retired after 30
years and is now the public sector vice
president at STS, continuing to work
on future installations.
“The vendor provided training on
the system, but because we started using
it as it came up, we basically didn’t
need any training,” Simmons said.
“The software is intuitive and extremely
Despite budget constraints, the Texas
Legislature has continued to invest in
“TDCJ’s use of best-of-breed technologies,
the support of top industry
partners and collaboration with TDCJ
personnel have created an impressive
and invaluable result,” said Bobby
Khullar, president and CEO of STS.
Ultimately, the system provides prison
staff unprecedented access to the units.
A warden using the system can see their
units like never before, which has dramatically
increased control. Texas prisons
have had numerous visitors from other
states who have been impressed by the
system’s functionality; one prominent
prison official from another
state simply said,
“I want one.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Security Today.
Jessica L. Clark is the executive vice president of STS 360.