Corrections gradually embraces innovation in access control

Biometrics, upscale perimeter detection augment touch-screen technology and PLC-based systems
 - 
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Biometrics, hand-held alarms, more reliable perimeter detection and other advanced technologies for protecting, identifying and tracking humans are finding their way into North America’s prisons, jails and detention centers despite the corrections industry’s reputation for foot-dragging when it comes to embracing cutting-edge security.

“Corrections is not exactly a leader” in adopting the latest innovation, said Martha Lee, vice president of sales at Ottawa-based Senstar, a global player in perimeter detection systems.

Lee, a former company president, said it’s understandable that state-of-the-art access control in jails and prisons is still accomplished with card readers, touch screens and IP-based programmable logic controls (PLC).

PLC-based systems can be upgraded with simple software changes, and having that kind of control “keeps facilities from being held hostage by manufacturers” who are constantly introducing new products, said Lee, an officer on the ASTM International technical committee responsible for overseeing standards for detention and correctional facilities. (ASTM was formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.)

Still, security officials in the corrections vertical are beginning to embrace a variety of sophisticated technologies, including biometrics for identity verification; personal security devices that use radio frequency (RF) and ultrasonic signals to limit the vulnerability of front-line officers; and sophisticated fences that use fiber-optic cable to detect and isolate intrusions.

Arkansas, for example, is more than halfway through a years-long plan to beef up access control with an identity verification system that uses a fingerprint biometric device. In the four years since the project was announced, the corrections department has instituted the process for visitors, staff and inmates at nearly all of its 20 facilities, according to Joyce Taylor, assistant director of public services for the state of Arkansas. Prison vendors and volunteers will be added to the system as resources allow.

Taylor said the biometric system, which verifies the identity of the person behind an ID badge, has sped up the movement of people around the compound. Many inmates, for example, must be able to quickly get to prison job sites, including the system’s many farms.

Despite the success of biometrics in Arkansas, integrators and designers say the U.S corrections industry is wise to take a cautious approach to the technology.

Jerry Forstater, a specifier whose Lansdale, Pa.-based company Professional Systems Engineering LLC has designed security systems for corrections facilities across the country, says fingerprint systems can be unreliable and slow and generally aren’t worth the investment.

Brian Mikiten, president of Secure Control Systems, an integrator based in San Antonio, Texas, agreed. “The response time gets slower as the amount of data increases,” he said, and the readers themselves may malfunction “as the texture of a person’s finger changes.” Both he and Forstater said iris and vein scans would be a more reliable method for facilities considering biometrics.

Keith Simpson, president and CEO of Simpson Security Systems Inc., a large integrator based in Alexandria, La., that recently completed a $7 million Federal Bureau of Prisons job in Aliceville, Ala., anticipates that the cost of biometrics will limit use of the technology to “critical” security functions in the corrections industry.

An example might include gaining access to keys stored in a vulnerable area, such as a housing wing for inmates. Installing a card reader might cost $1,500, he said, compared to $7,500 for a biometric device.

Perimeter security, the first and last line of defense when it comes to access control, has taken a decidedly high-tech turn in the field of corrections, where the widespread acceptance of fiber-optic detection makes it possible to monitor fences with fewer personnel while improving the response to alarms.

Ian Francisco, CEO of Unlimited Technology Inc., a global security integrator based in Chester Springs, Pa., says “fiber”—the term used in the security industry—is practical, reliable and extremely accurate. Fiber, he said, can be installed on an existing fence with minimal preparation. It can detect and evaluate something as subtle as a vibrating cellphone and pinpoint the location within a few feet. And when the detection system is integrated with long-range cameras, security personnel can get real-time video of the intrusion before deciding on a response.

Francisco believes fiber will remain the dominant perimeter-detection technology for the foreseeable future, citing its ease of use—it can be adapted to virtually any type of fence fabric—and low rate of false alarms, even in harsh climates.

At Senstar, however, Lee sees taut wire eventually playing a bigger role in perimeter detection, mainly in new construction because wire strung at 90 pounds of tension “needs lots of support.” The big advantage of taut wire, which is used in conjunction with traditional fence fabrics, is that its sensors are contained within the fence posts. “It has more sensitive electronics and fewer faults because, unlike fiber, (the sensors) are independent from the fence fabric and completely protected from the elements,” Lee said.

Jails and prisons, of course, must do more than keep the right people in and the wrong people out. They must also ensure the safety of officers who deal directly with inmates, a concern that can be eased significantly with high-tech personal alarms and emergency locating systems. Such devices, according to Lee, are gaining widespread acceptance in Canada, Senstar’s primary market for products aimed at the corrections industry.

Senstar’s Flare system, for example, is installed in walls and ceilings at 10-foot intervals. When a corrections officer activates a personal alarm, the RF signal allows the sensors to zero in on the location of the emergency. The Flare system is relatively inexpensive and a practical way to increase personal security at existing prisons, jails and detention centers, Lee said.

Senstar’s more expensive Personal Alarm System (PAS) uses ultrasonic technology and is better suited to new construction because it is hard-wired, a fact that gives it more flexibility. In addition to pinpointing the location of an individual in distress, for example, the PAS can be integrated with a facility’s overall security management system, allowing the person needing help to be graphically represented on a display at central control. In addition, according to Senstar, the ultrasonic receivers can be equipped with microphones and cameras to provide real-time audio and video of an incident.

A corrections facility can go one of two ways when hiring a contractor to install a state-of-the-art access control system. It can choose an experienced engineering company, like Forstater’s, or a full-service integrator, like Simpson, to custom-design the components and software using equipment produced by major manufacturers. The second option is to hire a contractor to install a pre-engineered, pre-programmed system.

Large integrators generally prefer custom-built systems with components and software geared to the needs of individual customers, according to Simpson. Custom systems, Simpson said, “are not that much more expensive” and provide more flexibility. Jails and prisons seeking to integrate access control with systems that control lights, water and other utilities, for example, should opt for custom-built, he said.

Mikiten, of Secure Control, prefers custom designs because of the possibility that manufacturers of so-called “turnkey” systems may no longer be in business when components need to be repaired or replaced. That situation, he said, could leave facilities with no choice but to pay for an expensive retrofit instead of a simple fix.

While there is more use of other technologies, access control in the corrections vertical will continue to be dominated by touch screens and PLCs.

The touch screen, Simpson said, is a “time-saving device” that has increased efficiency by reducing the time spent waiting for doors to open. Each screen, which can be programmed to display custom icons to increase simplicity, can also become a video screen and provide an incident report—with time, date and a video clip—in just five seconds.

PLCs, which receive signals and convert them into actions such as opening and closing doors, are not a new technology, but they remain the heart of any security system because they can be programmed from a PC, adding a degree of flexibility unheard of when relay switches controlled security functions.

Sophisticated PLCs also are capable of handling multiple systems. A very large prison, Mikiten said, might need 10 controllers to handle security. PLCs also can collect data on all functions, though Mikiten said few corrections facilities are taking full advantage of that capability.

He gets no argument from Forstater, whose company designed high-tech security systems for the newly built North Branch Correctional Institute in rural Maryland, a facility featured on the National Geographic Channel’s “Megastructures” program. Physical Security Information Management (PSIM), he said, will become a useful tool only when data is evaluated on a regular basis.