You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide

High-tech search tools help in a corrections environment

Maintaining the security of any large residential institution housing hundreds or thousands of people can be a daunting task. The problems faced by those in charge of preserving the peace in these facilities can mirror those of any urban police department. As in any diverse population, there are those who will remain lawful and those who look to circumvent the rules that serve to regulate the peace. In a correctional institution, however, these problems are magnified because the population is made up of inmates who have already violated societal law at least once and may have a predisposition for lawlessness, criminal enterprise and violence.

Most institutions have strict regulations on what prisoners are allowed to have in their possession, as well as rigorous screening procedures for new inmates and visitors. A key element to maintaining the safety and security of a correctional facility for both prisoners and staff members is to ensure that weapons, narcotics, cell phones and other types of contraband that further criminal activity are eliminated. These items can be minimized by frequent and thorough searches of the institution. Searches should be random to ward against preemptive acts by the institution’s population and to neutralize the search efforts

Ingenuity of Inmates
One thing prisoners have on their side is time. They can observe and study correctional protocol and operating procedures over long periods to look for holes in security regulations. Time also affords them the ability to engineer and fabricate dangerous jailhouse weapons from common items, such as scraps of steel or wood, toothbrushes and even old newspapers. Often these unauthorized items find their way into the population and are hidden in living spaces and/or common areas.

Appropriate search techniques can make a difference in minimizing violence and criminal activity. New video-based search tools allow officials to look into areas that are not easily accessible, increasing the efficiency, effectiveness and safety of search operations. Conducting more frequent and thorough searches ultimately results in fewer weapons and contraband in a population.

Look High, Look Low
When searching an area, it is best to break it up into two or three zones. These zones are typically defined by height. Low-level zones could be those areas that extend from the floor to a height of approximately 3 1/2 feet. A mid-level zone could extend from approximately 3 1/2 feet off the floor to 6 feet. Heights above 6 feet would be considered high-level zones. Each of the defined zones has its own issues relative to performing a thorough inspection.

Low-level zones usually require an inspector to search on hands and knees or crawl in order to look underneath furniture and fixtures and visually assess the conditions in these areas. Repetitive cell searches can create fatigue, compromising an official’s ability to detect suspicious items that may be hidden. A self-illuminating camera on a rolling trolley attached to a pole is a good tool to maximize the effectiveness of low-level searches. A high-resolution camera allows an officer to see things that might easily be missed when viewed on a portable, body-worn display.

High-level zones may require climbing, or the use of a ladder and possibly a second person, complicating and hindering the process. High-level searches can be accomplished with a camera on a telescoping pole. These pole cameras allow visual access to areas such as lighting fixtures, suspending ceilings, HVAC vents, high windowsills and ledges—all with the inspector’s feet on the ground.

Mid-level searches are best conducted with a small pole camera that allows the inspector to look in areas that would be difficult or hazard to assess using mirrors. The small pole camera can be inserted into tight areas, around corners or even into machinery to look for contraband and weapons. It’s also important to consider use of equipment that can be immersed in water. They can be used to look into such unpleasant areas as U-bends or toilets—a frequent location used to hide contraband and weapons.

Videoscopes and fiberscopes also can be used to gain visual access to small areas. A videoscope is an electronic device that can be up to two meters long and flexible with a 4- to 8- millimeter diameter. The tip can articulate in two or four directions, depending on the model. A light source can be used to generate light at the tip of the videoscope, if required. The inside of vents, sink drains, walls and any small opening can be inspected easily. Fiberscopes are similar to videoscopes, but they are optical instruments, not electronic. They are used for similar applications but typically produce a lower-resolution image.

Versatile Video
The use of technology-based video tools can expedite and improve the quality of a search operation. These tools usually feature a portable, battery-operated, body-worn video display that facilitates a close-up inspection of areas that are difficult to access or see. Modular systems that include interchangeable tools yield the most value because they allow a single system to be used in a variety of environments and conditions. The configuration of the video search system can be dynamically adjusted to deal with the challenges posed by inspecting the different search zones of a common area or personal living space. The tools typically consist of a high-resolution, low-light video camera that is optimized via its form factor to inspect a particular type of search zone or space. The cameras usually are ruggedly constructed to endure the rigors of repetitive use in a difficult environment and produce their own light for dark areas.

The video tools used in search operations also have value for tactical teams. Such teams are routinely deployed to quell inmate insurrections or riots. Once again, the modular approach maximizes the effectiveness and versatility of the tool by giving it additional capabilities with other accessories. The color camera used to search for contraband can be interchanged with an IR-illuminated, low-light camera on pole for tactical surveillance around corners, in stairwells and up high into windows or upper-tier cells. Other more exotic technologies also can be used, such as thermal imaging cameras and even small robots.

As technology marches forward, new video-based search tools allow correctional staff to be more efficient and effective in performing basic security sweeps in and around a facility. There are other, hidden benefits, as well. The conspicuous use of high-tech search tools can act as a deterrent against those who would consider smuggling contraband or hiding weapons within their living environment. The increased frequency and effectiveness of physical searches that can be accomplished using technology-based video search tools can play a significant role in increasing the safety of correctional officers and inmates alike.

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  • Security Today Magazine - October 2018

    October 2018

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