Examining the Promise of RFID Tracking in Prison

Inmate holds onto jail bars awaiting release

A summary of “Tracking Inmates and Locating Staff with Active Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID)” (Hickman)

The ability of active radio-frequency identification (RFID) to track the movements of inmates and staff could potentially reduce the violence that plagues some jails around the country. While this technology could offer a unique solution to this problem, a recent study found that proper implementation of the component systems, both technically and among those utilizing it, is one of the most important facets of successful active RFID.

Radio-Frequency Identification Technology

Continued growth in the use of radio-frequency identification indicates the need for a specific and effective solution for jail and prison violence. For years, correctional facilities have been using RFID to track inmates; in fact, as far back as 2005, the Los Angeles County Jail invested millions of dollars in a pilot program aimed at reducing violence among inmates.

Tracking Inmates and Staff

So, what is required for these RFID programs to be potentially effective? Dr. Laura J. Hickman, professor and director of the Portland State University Criminology & Criminal Justice online program, lead the research team that included Lois M. Davis, Edward Wells, and Mel Eisman. The resulting report, a RAND Corporation publication titled “Tracking Inmates and Locating Staff with Active Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID),” found that RFID requires proper planning and customization to be effective.

How It Works

Active RFID is made up of a network of devices — a “tag” with a programmable chip worn by inmates (as wristbands or ankle bracelets), officers, and staff (on belts) and the RFID sensors, receivers, and monitors with which it communicates with near real time via radio waves. The unique tag’s location is monitored via the sensors and can trigger alerts if one of a set of pre-programmed conditions is met. This location information is also archived for future use in investigations if necessary.

When implemented correctly, an RFID system could help keep inmates out of restricted areas and away from other inmates that they could potentially harm or be harmed by. Additionally, if an officer needs help, the system could pinpoint his or her exact location for quick assistance. The technology is intended to reduce violence, disciplinary actions, and escape attempts, improve incident investigations, and improve overall control in the prison, according to the study.

The Hickman et al. Study

At the time of the study, 14 correctional institutions in the U.S. were identified as using some form of active RFID technology. Five were using it for inmate tracking, three for locating staff, and six for both. The study focused on one facility as a case study, Central Detention Facility (CDF) operated by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DC DOC).  The researchers found that, overall, active RFID has potential, but obstacles like lack of training and technical issues can inhibit efficacy.

Key Findings

A 2010 RFID Journal article summarize the Hickman et al. study by stating: “RFID deployments in correctional facilities require considerable customization to each prison’s unique needs and infrastructure.” This conclusion is based on the study’s key findings:

  • Administrators should choose systems that match specifically outlined objectives.
  • They may also benefit from consulting with experts (independent of technology vendors) to oversee the design and implementation of the chosen RFID system.
  • When implementing a RFID system, educating and training the staff is key to success, especially when it comes to expectations and how to use the system, as well as “how to fine-tune alert response protocols and whether and how to analyze the data to inform management decisions.”
  • It is important to ensure that the RFID system integrates well with existing prison technologies and protocols.
  • It would be beneficial to start with a pilot in one area of the institution to fine-tune the system and ensure efficacy.

As Dr. Hickman explains in the previously mentioned article, “What appeared to us is that this is not a technology you can take out of a box and expect it to work.” It seems RFID systems can indeed be effective with the proper preparation.