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Putting Technology Behind Bars

The Fourth Avenue Jail in Maricopa County, Phoenix, Arizona, which opened its incarceration area in April 2005, is an example of how innovative building design, cutting-edge technology, and well-trained personnel can combine to create a secure environment. Built in a style that matches the architectural warehouse feel of the surrounding area, the facility is a mid-rise building that takes up one city block in downtown Phoenix. In addition to the prisoner facilities, it includes two initial-appearance courts—one for the county and one for the City of Phoenix—as well as a high-security superior courtroom, and an early-felony-disposition courtroom. Although the incarceration section of the jail—located on the second, third, and fourth floors of the building—was only recently opened, the intake area and the courts have been open since September 2004.

The 600,000-square-foot maximum-security facility, which can house more than 2,000 prisoners, was the brainchild of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio began by setting up a new jail construction unit to help develop and implement the plans. The team was composed of two planning coordinators and security, technology, and construction experts from the Maricopa County Sheriff ’s Office.

The façade of the jail does not have the traditional trappings of a high-security facility. Red brick, stainless steel, and glass blocks adorn the exterior, which is unmarred by chain-link fences or barbed wire. The unobtrusive veneer belies the modern and innovative interior. Among the elements that make up the facility’s cutting-edge approach to security are the high-tech security system, with biometric access control and digital CCTV cameras, special cell construction, and a state-of-the-art video visitation program.

The courts. Inside the intake area are two initial-appearance courts. Arizona law requires that all arrested individuals appear before a magistrate judge within 24 hours of arrest. Although the public is not allowed to enter the courtroom, monitors inside the visitor lobby allow members of the public to view the action inside.

Additionally, Arizona law permits victims of crimes to be present and testify at each court proceeding, including the initial-appearance hearing. When victims choose to testify at the initial hearing, they are led to a private booth adjacent to the visitor lobby. The booth contains a monitor with live audio and video from inside the court. If the victim chooses to make a statement, he or she can do so over an intercom also located in the booth.

The two superior courtrooms are located in the basement of the facility. Members of the public can enter those courtrooms through a designated court entrance, where they must walk through metal detectors monitored by officers from the Sheriff ’s Office. Security inside the courtroom, including guards and CCTV, is controlled by employees of the superior court.

Access control. Access control is a major concern in any secured facility, and it is even more critical for a jail. Arpaio and the other members of the jail construction unit wanted a highly secure and reliable means of controlling access and identifying both staff and inmates. They ultimately decided that a system based on biometrics would best meet their needs. What they liked about a biometric identifier was that, unlike a card, it could not be lost, stolen, or demagnetized, says Jail Planning Coordinator Captain Charles E. Johnson.

An iris scan was chosen because, according to Johnson, it was the most reliable biometric identifier available at the time of installation. One selling point was that unlike some fingerprint readers, which can be affected by lotion or other substances on the surface of the hand, the iris scanner works without direct contact.

The iris scanner was installed by Norment Technologies, and Johnson says it has yet to produce any false-positive or false-negative reads—no unauthorized personnel have gotten in, and no authorized personnel have been denied.

Enrolling users into the system required recording a template of each iris. Johnson says that it is necessary to record both irises because the composition of each eye is different. With both irises recorded, either eye can be used to operate the door. The templates are then entered into a database along with the employee’s name, identification number, work location, and work hours.

All jail employees enter the vestibule of the Fourth Avenue Jail through a designated man-trap secured by a card reader. Once inside the first door, the employee steps up to the iris scanner mounted within the vestibule next to the second door. This door, which allows access to the jail, will open only after the employee’s iris has matched the profile stored in the iris database.

Inmates go through a similar registration process. Iris templates from inmates, as well as identifiers such as name, age, sex, and booking identification number, are entered into the database when the inmates are brought to the facility. Additionally, the database is linked to each inmate’s file, which contains his or her photograph, fingerprints, and a record of all other prior convictions.

When the system installation is completed this fall, prisoners scheduled to leave the Fourth Avenue facility will be asked to use the iris scanner that will be mounted on the secured door. The inmate’s iris scan and corresponding release date must match for the door to open. Since the system cannot be tricked into mistaking the prisoner for someone else, the process will help to ensure that the wrong prisoner will not be released.

Inmate information will be kept in the database indefinitely. Each time a new inmate is admitted, the database can be scanned for a match of that new person’s iris image. This check will catch a formerly released inmate who has adopted an alias in an attempt to avoid being recognized as someone with a criminal record.

CCTV. Surveillance is also a critical element of security at the Fourth Avenue Jail. The facility was designed to have complete remote coverage via digital cameras, which are located in every holding cell, interrogation room, corridor, booking area, elevator, and courtroom. Prisoners are guaranteed of at least one thing: someone is always watching.

Manufactured by NICE, the system records at 30 frames per second and footage is retained for six months. If an incident occurs, the relevant footage is burned onto a CD, DVD, or videotape. One copy is sent to the investigators, the other copy is kept indefinitely in the jail’s library.

The system has several features that can make analyzing an incident easier. For example, operators can zoom in on and isolate a person or item in one frame as something to be tracked in subsequent frames.

Johnson says that the cameras have helped security personnel maintain order and prosecute individuals who violated jail rules. In one incident, for example, two inmates in a mass holding cell with several other inmates decided to create chaos by damaging an overhead sprinkler, causing it to drench all the prisoners below.

One of the prisoners, with his face covered, stood on the other man’s shoulders and hit the sprinkler. All the inmates, the two men included, proceeded to pull their shirts over their heads to hide their faces from the water and their identities from the surveillance cameras.

Guards quickly entered the cell and ordered the prisoners to exit and proceed to another holding area down the hall. As the prisoners left the cell, the officer demanded that they each remove their heads from their shirts.

In this case, investigators were at first unable to determine which inmates were involved. The officer reviewing the video created a tracking box around the recording of the two men as they were damaging the sprinkler. The tracking box remained around the two prisoners, whose faces were covered at that point, as they were led out of the cell and asked to uncover their heads. CCTV cameras then tracked the now-identified men to the next holding cell.

The men were removed from the group and shown printed photos, taken from the coverage. After seeing the photo, one man confessed, but both were charged with damaging a public jail.

The system has also protected officers and jail employees from charges of misconduct and brutality by inmates. In one incident, an officer from an outside agency was interrogating a suspect. After the interrogation, the suspect accused the officer of brutality. The tape of the event was pulled for review by internal investigators. The footage appeared to confirm the inmate’s account. It showed the officer moving his fist down toward the inmate, then striking him.

The interrogation room, however, had multiple camera angles—one from each side, one from the front, and one from the back. When the side view was analyzed, an entirely different story emerged. From the side angle, the prisoner could be seen kicking the officer three times in the leg.

The kicking was not picked up on the front view, originally analyzed, because the table the inmate was sitting behind and the officer’s body obscured the view. Although the officer was striking the prisoner in a downward motion, it was done to stop the prisoner from kicking him a fourth time. The prisoner alleging the abuse was given a rude surprise when instead of winning his case, he was charged with assault on a police officer.

Touch screens. All of the security system’s elements, including cameras, doors, readers, audio devices, and pagers, are controlled from touchscreen consoles. (The cameras can also be monitored from a password-protected Web site.)

The main console is at central command; others are available at each level. Officers operating the local touchscreen console are only capable of controlling activities happening on their floor. Central command, however, can control the entire facility and can override the local controls from their windowless room, which is staffed around the clock by three officers. This redundancy ensures that if the local control station is compromised, such as during an attempted escape, officers in the command center can retain control of the facility.

In addition to controlling security devices, personnel can use the consoles to control the other operations of the facility, including lighting and elevators. To operate the elevators, for example, an officer moves the elevator icon up and down on the touch-screen device. The elevator will not move unless someone in the control room deliberately moves it. Once the elevator reaches the desired floor, the doors remain closed unless the officer in the command center opens them using the touch-screen.

Video visitation. The Fourth Avenue Jail has also taken an innovative approach to inmate visitation procedures. Instead of the usual setup, where inmates see visitors through a thick glass wall and speak to them via phone, inmates communicate with visitors remotely via an electronic video-conferencing system.

Visual communication happens through a high-quality image that is simultaneously recorded and displayed in real time on a screen that the visitor sees while sitting in a designated booth in the visitor reception area. The inmate sits in a similar booth in the prisoner’s living area. The visitor and the inmate speak over an audio line, which is also recorded.

To visit an inmate, visitors enter the jail lobby during designated visiting hours and report to the reception area. The visitors tell the officer on duty who they are visiting, and the officer enters the relevant data into the visitation system.

A pass with a booth number and the name of the inmate is printed at both the reception area and at the local control office on the inmate’s floor. Once the pass has been generated, the visitor is escorted to a booth with a handset and video monitor. The prisoner is also shown to a booth, which corresponds to the booth number generated on the pass.

There are instructions on the screen in both English and Spanish. When visitors initiate the process, they are placed in a queue until the inmate logs into the visitation session. The session, which lasts for 30 minutes, does not begin until both parties are on the line. When 10 seconds remain, a flashing countdown gives the visitor and the inmate time to say goodbye. After the 30 minutes expire, the screen goes blank and the audio is disconnected.

Because the visitation booths are in the inmate’s living quarters, Johnson says, he and his officers don’t have to worry about the risks of transporting inmates and controlling large groups of unruly prisoners.

He also says that the video system has made it easier to end each visit. Before the system was installed, inmates and their visitors would regularly protest at the end of their thirty minutes. In addition, if the visitation does not involve legal counsel, the conversation can be recorded and scrutinized at a later date.

Cells. The facility’s designers faced a number of challenges, not the least of which was the need to make optimum use of the square footage they were allotted to create the jail, intake services, and courtroom spaces that would be housed within. Because the building architects were working with a relatively small space, they wanted something that would be more compact, but not less secure, than the standard 12-inch-thick concrete cell walls used in most jail construction.

They settled on a two-inch-thick wall-panel solution called MaxWall, made by the Norment Security Group. The system’s special construction gives it strength despite its relative thinness.

Two parallel sets of wall panels are fitted into steel channels in the floor and ceiling so that the parallel rows of wall panels are two inches apart. These two sides are then welded together at the top with steel enclosure plates. Once the panels have been welded together, 3,000 psi concrete is poured inside the two-inch space between them via a hole in one of the panels.

Johnson says that the walls are much stronger than the traditional 12-inch concrete, and there is virtually no way inmates can chisel their way through them. He estimates that using this system saved more than 30,000 square feet of space.

Johnson adds that the materials have eliminated the problem of prisoners banging on cell walls. “No prisoner is going to bang on the walls without breaking their hands,” he says.

In addition to standard cells, the jail also features padded safety cells and isolation cells. The intake area contains holding cells for four to 50 people and also has specialized cells for psychiatric observation. Negative pressure cells, which have a separate ventilation system and are used to isolate potentially contagious inmates to prevent exposure to other inmates, are also included in the intake area.

Training. There are currently 499 detention officers working in the Fourth Avenue Jail. Although the employees that work in the jail need not be sworn police officers, many are.

A high-security environment presents many potential threats, and officers must be prepared to deal with them. To that end, officers are given many resources, such as pepper spray, stun guns, and firearms. But equally important are their own skill sets. “We try to get our people and our officers as much training as possible,” says Johnson.

In 2003, the Sheriff ’s Office opened a new officer-training center to help in that regard. The new center—which replaced a small, outdated structure with four classrooms—houses the officer training academy that consists of 19 classrooms and a mock jail structure in which the officers perform drills and other activities related to their jobs.

Prospective detention officers take eight weeks of classes. They are tested on what they have learned in each course and must pass with a 70 percent correct-answer ratio or higher. According to Johnson, most academy classes start with approximately 50 students. Of the 50 initial students, he says, between 35 and 40 students graduate from the academy.

Detention officers who have passed the training academy and begun work in the jail system are encouraged to take more specialized training offered elsewhere. For example, one officer at the Fourth Avenue Jail is horizontal-gaze-nystagmus (HGN) certified, which means he is trained to observe and test individuals believed to be under the influence of alcohol.

The Fourth Avenue Jail is an example of an innovative and successful penitentiary environment. Its outside-the-box design helps keep inmates within its walls and lets officials keep the lid on potential problems.

Marta Roberts is staff editor at Security Management.