Minnesota turns to RFID to monitor inmates

The system can track prisoners, modify behavior

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) is about to roll out a half-million-dollar radio frequency identification (RFID) inmate-tracking system at one of its facilities to boost security and automate the monitoring of prisoners.

Earlier this month, the DOC announced that it is installing the inmate-tracking system in the 1,300-inmate minimum/medium-security Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes, which houses sex offenders. The prime contractor for the project is Crowley Co., a Minneapolis-based provider of high-security fencing and monitoring systems. The RFID system is from Alanco Technologies Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A spokeswoman for the DOC offered few details about the project, except to note the state has other prisons with RFID-based inmate-tracking systems. She deferred questions to Alanco.

Alanco's system is "a very powerful management tool that... can change the way prisons are managed," said Greg Oester, president of Alanco/TSI Prism Inc. the Alanco subsidiary providing the RFID technology. "It provides a level of monitoring not available by any other way. The inmates know they are monitored and are lectured that the system is there, and they learn very quickly that it is extremely accurate. Basically, they stop doing the things they face additional punishments for."

Its use can also free up correctional staff to engage in other tasks, such as drug sweeps, instead of just monitoring inmates.

The tracking system is based on active RFID tag technology and provides alerts if something abnormal is going on, such as a fight among the inmates, said Oester. In such a system, he explained, both inmates and corrections guards carry a proprietary RFID tag -- inmates get wrist straps, while guards get pager like devices -- that sends out a signal every two seconds to antennas installed inside of the facility and around its perimeter. The readers feed information into the proprietary TSI Prism management application that sends the data to a master terminal in a control room as well as to client terminals placed in strategic locations throughout the facility, such as the warden's office.

It's up to the prison administrators to decide what the exceptions are. They could include any time a prisoner gets within 10 feet of a fence or when two rival prison gang leaders get too close. If there is an exception, such as a fight or if an RFID strap is torn off, the rules-based software detects it immediately. The monitoring screen goes from green to red and sends out an audio alert. Once an alert is issued, the screen shows where the trouble is and identifies nearby guards and prisoners.

If it's a gang fight or a hostage situation, the staff will know the identities of everyone involved and what the threat level is based on the histories of the offending inmates, which are kept in a database. "It's proven to be a tremendous aid in reducing prison violence," said Oester. Every infraction committed by a prisoner is in the database, and any perpetrator of a crime can be immediately located and dealt with.

A prisoner can be tracked in virtual real time, as well. "If there is an inmate suspected of being a mule [carrier] for contraband, we can watch him all day and find out where he goes and roll up his whole network," said Oester. It can also be used to document prison processes, such as whether a diabetic inmate has received his medication or not.

Oester said he expects the Lino Lakes prison implementation to begin by the end of July.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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