Inside the new high-tech lock-downs

Prison gadgetry promises to save money and reduce overcrowding -- but at what cost?

Published August 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In a small, dim room where riot gear is chained to the wall and a computer monitor is perched on the counter, three jail guards sit comfortably behind tall tinted windows, keeping order on the cell block below them without lifting a boot. The recreation room, jail cells and showers arc in a neat semicircle around the control booth. Cell doors are open since it is recreation time, and the inmates, wearing Los Angeles County's gold and royal blue uniforms, play checkers and talk in the day room, an open area near the cells. Instead of bars, shatter-proof glass walls confine the inmates -- leaving guards and prisoners to eye each other mutely all day long, like fish in neighboring tanks on a pet store shelf.

"Lock down, possible miss out in the facility," a voice crackles over the booth's intercom. Somewhere in the building an inmate is missing. No one moves except officer Johnson. He casually flips a switch on the control panel, and a loud siren begins to wail. Then he bends the microphone toward his mouth. "All inmates in 151, all inmates in 151, lock down, lock down," he chants in a cheerful singsong voice. "Start closing all cell doors, we're locking down, gentlemen," he finishes, easing back from the microphone.

The trio of guards look on from their perch as the 192 inmates on this floor break up their conversations and amble toward the two-tiered wall of cells on their own. There is no need for the guards to leave the booth. If anything looks suspicious, the officers can flip a switch to eavesdrop on any of the 96 cells, or talk privately with an inmate from the comfort of their post. Although a video camera points toward the day room, ready to document any trouble that might arise, nothing transpires -- the inmates seem more resigned than defiant. Once in their cells, the prisoners close the solid doors and wait to hear the bolt slide into place, as the guards in the control booth move lever after lever.

When each door is secured, lights on the booth's console flicker from red to green, indicating who is locked in. Only after all doors are sealed will the guards leave their posts to peer through the small glass windows in each cell door, visually identifying and counting inmates.

This is life in the Twin Towers, Los Angeles County's high-tech lock up. The sleek new building is the first of what is being hailed as a new generation of jails -- facilities that combine technology and innovative design to help contain the cost of jailing people while further isolating and controlling them. Fueled by decades of anti-crime rhetoric, inmate populations have boomed in recent years -- from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 1997 -- and pushed prison capacity to the breaking point. Today, with the help of high-tech solutions, prisons are now locking up more prisoners using fewer guards -- and at the same time furthering the trend toward less rehabilitation and more punishment.

- - - - - - - - - -

In the early 1980s, California pioneered the effort to funnel new technology into prisons. Last year, the state became the first to use a new inmate monitoring system that, according to its creator, revolutionizes the way prisons are run.

Jim Ricketts, president and founder of Technology Systems International, is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs seeking fortunes in corrections technology. He left a successful career at the Colorado Department of Corrections to found his own company in Scottsdale, Ariz. Ricketts thought he could use his lifetime of experience to cash in on the high-tech rush. He took an idea to Motorola and left with PRISM, the Prison Inmate and Safety Management System. PRISM is designed to reduce the amount of time guards spend counting prisoners -- a face-to-face visual identification process that has changed little in the last 100 years.

In a PRISM prison, each inmate wears a wrist band that looks like an oversized digital watch. Guards wear devices that look like beepers. Both gadgets emit a radio signal every two seconds that is received by nodes located throughout the prison and yard, enabling the system to continuously tally inmates. The signal carries identifying characteristics that allow PRISM to recognize individuals. By recording the location of the node and the time difference between signal receptions, the system allows each prisoner's location to be noted and monitored all day, every day. This information is digitally archived and stored for up to a week. If violence breaks out, guards can find out who was in the area and use that information in court. A schedule for every inmate can also be entered in the system so PRISM, like an omnipresent truant officer, can ensure that everyone is in the right place at the right time. If an inmate blocks the signal or takes the band off, PRISM will make sure that someone comes looking.

Ricketts is proud of his system but aware that such persistent monitoring can have a dark side as well. "A system like this can be tightened down so much that it can drive the inmates crazy," he admits. "Normally we recommend allowing inmates some latitude."

At Salinas Valley State Prison, a huge, low complex that almost disappears into the flat, brown agricultural landscape an hour south of San Jose, a computer-monitored lethal electric fence encircles the prison's perimeter. In place at more than 20 California prisons, this gulag-style inmate catcher has become a statewide favorite. The 5,100-volt current that courses through the wires is more than double the jolt given by Florida's infamous electric chair, Old Sparky. Gus Meza, the plant supervisor for the prison, says the fence is so effective that 11 of 13 guard towers can be
left unoccupied, saving Salinas Valley $1 million a year in staffing costs.

At first glance a lethal fence seems extreme, a harking back to some of the darker pages in modern history. But given the intrusive nature of the microphones, video cameras and stagelike showers that grace many new prisons and jails, the fence strikes a strangely benign note. Sandwiched between two chain-link fences that are topped with loops of razor wire, the 15 electrified wires hang no more than a foot apart. Any movement of the wire, or variation in the current, will trigger an alarm -- and a lethal jolt. Guards in the command center watch a graphic representation of the fenced perimeter that instantly pinpoints any change in current; the same system also sends a message to the watch commander's beeper in the event of an incident. So far, the fence has worked -- no one has yet escaped over or under it.

Technology like this is increasingly seen as the answer to America's prison crisis. While inmate populations have ballooned at every level of the justice system, spending, though growing as well, has not kept pace. Governments are scrambling to meet the needs of money-hungry corrections departments. Since staffing costs will eventually balloon beyond a prison's original price tag, and employees account for 65 percent of a prison's operating budget, jobs are an obvious target for cuts. "You fight for operating budgets year after year, which is why staff is often cut back," explains Steve Carter, president of Carter Goble Associates, a prison consulting firm. "You only have to negotiate for your capital budget once." That makes it easier to invest in technology over people -- even if it does come at the cost of angering California's politically potent prison guard lobby.

Not everyone thinks that prison is the place for high-tech supervision. "Technology is working against what jails should be doing," says Dr. Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist with the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y. Wener, who has studied prisons for 20 years and regularly consults on new corrections designs, is frustrated by the Twin Towers approach. "High-tech supervision," he says, "is not the most effective way to run a jail; it is not safer, not less stressful, not a better opportunity for rehabilitation or education." Wener wants to tear down the control booth and put guards back on the floor where they can get to know inmates. He advocates direct supervision -- the jailhouse equivalent of community policing. "When you are on the floor, you can stop a fight before it starts," he says. "When you are observing from a distance, all you can do is break up the fight after it has begun."

But rehabilitation is rarely a concern anymore, says Jennie Gainsborough, a spokeswoman for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Popular attitudes toward imprisonment have become more punitive. And as politicians get further into the business of dictating how inmates will be managed, prison environments have become increasingly restrictive, often with the help of new technology. Carter is also well aware of the problems. "In some instances, technology is being used to ensure that inmates live in total isolation," he says. Corrections officials bug cells, talk to inmates over speakers and beam what classes are available to TVs placed outside cells; even family members' visits are now channeled through a TV screen, thanks to the magic of teleconferencing. "What effect do you think this would have on you?" Gainsborough asks. "Would it contribute to mental health, or increase social problems?"

Her question, like Wener's solution, has been largely ignored during the recent prison-construction boom. While direct supervision was the hot new trend 15 years ago, today, high-tech circular designs dominate the punitive cutting edge. Chief Barry King, who runs Twin Towers, is convinced that the round design of the jail, coupled with its reliance on technology, is the only thing that makes the 4,000-bed, maximum security jail affordable to operate. "In an old jail, everything was designed in blocks -- you needed more people to walk the rows of cells. Over here, you can have one guard watch the whole area," he says, gesturing at the stylish new jail that rises outside his window.

To develop efficient plans for people like King, designers have looked all the way back to Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century British utilitarian philosopher and grandfather of the hottest trend in prison design today. Bentham, a social reformer, drew up plans for his ideal prison, the panopticon -- a circular cell-house with a central guard station where a few officers could watch over hundreds of inmates stacked many stories high. Prison administrators following Bentham believed that the specter of constant surveillance would make prisoners more apt to follow rules and help them integrate into society when they were released. Bentham's plan also required fewer guards -- a fact that has not been lost on today's prison designers.

Charles Oraftik runs the criminal justice division of Hellmuth Obata and Kassabaum, the San Francisco architectural firm that designed the Twin Towers. He points to the circular prison plan in front of him, noting the ease with which inmates can be viewed by a single, centrally placed guard. Because staffing costs can far outstrip a prison's original price tag, designers are now under intense pressure to dream up buildings that allow fewer staff to control ever larger numbers of inmates. "The most important thing is to be secure and efficient. If your building is not efficient, it can cost you," Oraftik says. Improving sight lines from the control booth to the prison floor and into every cell is the key to keeping guard-to-inmate ratios low.

In the 1960s, the guard-to-prisoner ratio was 1-to-30. Now, 1-to-60 is common. Some prisons, like one Oraftik is working on in a remote part of Oregon, have a ratio of 1-to-100. "We can make the architecture so
efficient that the limits fade," he says with pride. "We are not limited by architecture, but by human capability. Eventually the staff burns out. You can allow them to see even more than they can process."

Along with changing their designs, prisons administrators are using technology to help them isolate what they consider problem inmates from the general population, creating prisons within the prison system. This is not a particularly new development -- the trend began as far back as the 1930s, at Alcatraz, the desolate island penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz's first warden, James Johnson, created a prison far ahead of its time. He directed everything from the use of pastel colors -- which he thought would calm inmates long before studies proved it so -- to elaborate safety precautions and procedures.

At Alcatraz, guns and keys were kept in elevated caged walkways that lined the walls at the north and south ends of the main cellblock. Armed guards watched over the entire floor from these perches, rather than walking the floor where inmates could grab weapons. Keys were lowered on a string only when needed. Alcatraz added electrically operated remote control doors to the isolation units in 1940, and early metal detectors, which inmates called snitch boxes, scanned prisoners twice a day. At every point as they were shuffled from work to meals and back to their cells, inmates were tallied, watched and searched.

After Alcatraz closed in the 1960s, the government dumped troublesome federal inmates into the general prison population. Twenty years of this proved enough for the feds, and in the 1980s they once again began to sequester problem inmates -- this time at Marion prison in Illinois. Administrators dreamed up a whole new kind of prison, a place where inmates were confined to their cells up to 22 and a half hours a day as part of their regular routine.

Marion, and prisons like it that have sprung up around the country, rely on surveillance and remote-control technology to monitor and supervise inmates while isolating them. Using even basic technology, it is possible to move an inmate from his cell to the yard and back again without ever coming in contact with him. Plummeting prices and the increased sophistication of surveillance and computer technology have made it possible to replicate "supermax" prisons like Marion elsewhere, for less cost.

As surveillance has became more accepted, state and even local governments have gotten into the game, says Stephen Ingley, director of the American Jail Association. "The technology is everywhere. It has become easier to find and cheaper to buy," he says. In 1980 there were no supermax prisons in the United States; the phrase had yet to be coined. Now there are 50 supermax prisons, and more on the way. California's three units house 2,700 of its 154,000 inmates. "Supermax is the flavor of the decade," says Carter.

But the prison of choice in the 1990s has not been without its problems. In 1995, the California Department of Corrections lost a major class-action suit over the nightmarish conditions at the Pelican Bay State Prison's supermax facility, known as the Secure Housing Unit (SHU).

Opened in 1989, Pelican Bay has been a long-running scandal for the Department of Corrections. Prisoners are not relegated to the SHU because of the crimes they committed on the outside, but because of the rules they broke on the inside. And placement in the SHU is often for the duration of a prisoner's sentence. The 8-by-10-foot cells have no windows. The walls are white, and all that can be seen through the perforations in each cell's metal door is another white wall. Many inmates do not have televisions or radios. And, as at Marion, they are kept in their cells 22 and a half hours a day. Guards perched in control booths can open and close doors and communicate with inmates without ever leaving their seats. Human contact is minimal.

"It's like a space capsule where one is shot into space and left in isolation," said one inmate who testified in the suit. Significant numbers of inmates had mental problems that were exacerbated by the high-tech isolation inside the SHU. They experienced audio or visual distortions and outright hallucinations, aggressive fantasies, paranoia or problems controlling their impulses. Suicide attempts and violent outbursts were regular occurrences. Guard-on-inmate violence skyrocketed.

Despite its problems, Pelican Bay has become a model for dozens of supermax prisons popping up around the country. Louisiana now has three supermax prisons; Pennsylvania has two; Washington state, three. And now, the Twin Towers has become the first facility to bring the supermax concept all the way down to the county jail level -- where most inmates have yet to be convicted of anything and are still awaiting trial.

Though the Twin Towers houses only maximum security inmates, a few of the jail's floors have been set aside for what King calls "high-power" inmates -- people deemed to be so dangerous that they must spend even their recreation time locked in a cage. On most floors in the jail, the recreation yards are open spaces with basketball hoops and pay phones; but on the isolation floors, no one is going to shoot hoops. The space is occupied by four 8-by-10-foot cages, each equipped with a jail phone. The cages are staggered diagonally across the floor so one guard can watch all the inmates. Sgt. Andres Ramirez explains that high-power inmates are required by law to have time in the yard. But because of their classification, they must also be separated from other prisoners at all times. "This," Ramirez says, his hand resting on the cage, "qualifies as exposure to outside recreation." His voice is clear, without a hint of irony.

On the second floor of the Twin Towers, a crowd of employees has gathered at a window that looks into the building's command center. The passage to freedom is adjacent to this bustling nerve center so guards can visually identify people moving in and out of the secure area. Inside, guards dash frantically about, bumping shoulders in the tight space, answering phone calls and responding to requests to open doors, move elevators or change ventilation patterns. They flash a quick look at a video monitor or bark into a microphone to ensure that they are not letting the wrong person pass through a door or an elevator. Occasionally a guard glances at the growing crowd waiting at the door, but amid the insistent buzzing they can do little more than shrug apologetically. It will be a while.

When the door finally opens, I walk down a long hallway past row after row of gun lockers, heading steadily toward the exit sign. At the end of the hall a door leads to a metal staircase painted in tasteful teal. I soon find myself on an empty, glass-enclosed landing. The only door leads outside. I suddenly begin to wonder if the door will open, if I will be allowed to get out -- after all, it is a jail. I reach out to push the latch, expecting to find it locked. But the instant before I make contact, I hear a heavy metallic clang; the mechanism is unlocked and the door swings wide.

Outside, I take a deep breath. I want to walk quickly to my car and flee this corner of Los Angeles, but I can't resist one last look. As the door slowly shuts, I catch a glimpse of a small window facing me in the wall about 10 feet up. Behind the glass, I can make out the sleepless eye of a video camera.

By Jim Rendon

Jim Rendon is a staff writer for Metro, Silicon Valley's alternative weekly newspaper. He has also written for Wired.

MORE FROM Jim Rendon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------