Washington, D.C., Jail Uses RFID Technology
By Mikel Chavers, CSG Associate Editor
If a corrections officer in a Washington, D.C., jail falls down on the job or his security is compromised, special radio frequency identification chips send out the alert –– “man down!” Using the same computer-chip technology, every inmate will wear a wristband so officials will know in real time where the inmate is.
“The security applications are going to be immense,” said Devon Brown, director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections.
Brown’s department will implement the RFID technology in the District’s only publicly run jail in the coming weeks. The facility can hold 2,164 inmates and employs 917 correctional officers. Each inmate will wear an RFID bracelet and every 25 to 50 feet a computer monitor will receive the signals sent from the RFID chips embedded in the bracelets. Those monitors keep tabs on all the inmates in real time.
For example, if a prisoner needs emergency medical attention, staff will be able to find that person quickly. And when it comes to prisoner counts, the RFID technology makes that a snap—there’s less likelihood of false counts that can put a jail on lockdown and force staffers on previous shifts to stay and work overtime. RFID could mean savings in overtime costs, Brown said.
Cost savings may come into play now that Washington, D.C.’s correctional department—like other states’ corrections departments—is squeezed by tight budgets. The city’s Department of Corrections is operating under 10 percent budget cuts for the second straight year, according to Brown.
“We will have the largest application of RFID in the country,” Brown said. Washington, D.C., will roll out the technology with the help of a National Institute of Justice grant and will serve as a test site for use of RFID in correctional facilities.
There are only about 10 prison facilities that use or plan to use RFID, Brown said. One was recently evaluated by the Urban Institute, which released a report in October.
The Urban Institute report looked at RFID use in the Northeast Pre-Release Center, a women’s prison in Cleveland, Ohio. According to the report, “The technology can be programmed to issue alerts when inmates are out of place, in prohibited locations, or in proximity to individuals with whom they have conflict. In addition, RFID historical records can be used to investigate allegations of inmate misconduct.”
The technology was supposed to be used to help staff identify inmate misconduct as it happens and may turn into some sort of risk detection, according to the report. Also, that risk detection was supposed to deter inmates from sexual assault, consensual sex, fighting and other violence, the report said.
But, according to the Urban Institute’s evaluation, those advanced uses for the RFID technology weren’t initiated.
Brown admitted it wasn’t a favorable evaluation, but that particular facility had only just started using the technology and was in the process of implementing RFID, Brown said. He compared the situation to testing a car for speed that only currently has two wheels installed.
“Some would hold it shouldn’t have evaluated it then,” Brown said.
The Rand Corporation, another research institution, will evaluate the District’s use of RFID in its jail. That report is expected in a year.