High Security: Jail and Prison Security Systems Call for Highly Specialized Installers

Prison Security Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mark Stay
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mark Stay
Published On
Apr 15, 2019

Every jail, prison and correctional facility depends on technology to keep personnel, visitors and prisoners safe. The contractors and integrators that install or maintain those systems operate in a highly specialized niche. As jails evolve, manufacturers and ECs are adjusting to meet the latest challenges.

Companies behind this technology like to partner with installers who understand the environment and its unique hurdles. With the permanence of concrete walls and an unpredictable population of inmates, installations need to be well-planned and highly robust, while flexible enough to be refurbished when needed.

Contractors and integrators are designing and installing everything from perimeter management to wireless guard safety systems and smoke detectors. The work is done in a highly secure environment, and the system will be tested like in no other installation. On top of that, the systems are changing. The technology is better at identifying personnel locations and threats, such as drones, drugs and weapons.

Each institution poses its own demands. The needs of a ­minimum-security facility differ from a maximum-security penitentiary; however, both require a system to track prisoner, guard and visitor safety.

“Over the past 43 years, we’ve been involved in minimum, medium, maximum and administrative segregation correctional facilities, and the security requirements vary dramatically,” said Arthur Birch, president, ECSI International, Clifton, N.J., a provider of high-tech security solutions for these types of environments.

Technology selection is important, and application is just as critical. If misapplied, even the best technology is ineffective.

Minimum to maximum security

In minimum security facilities where inmates have more freedom to move around the campus, perimeter and access control require a robust surveillance system. Also, the housing units within those walls, such as dormitory-style and multiperson units, don’t demand the high security level that is applied to the individual cells of a maximum or administrative segregation security facility.

Maximum security sites typically require a central command center where officers monitor the housing units, each containing approximately 50 individual cells.

“A good security system can monitor each of those cells,” Birch said.

It’s important to have a view into each cell, including the status of each door—whether it’s closed or open and whether the bolt is engaged. The latter is especially important because, if the door is closed but the bolt not thrown, the door could become a weapon used against an unsuspecting guard.

Integration of life safety systems—including smoke detectors in return air ducts to identify potential fire hazard, as well as the cell security conditions—are monitored at the housing unit control room and in the central command and control center.

Automated responses

It’s a far cry from days when officers kept constant watch of a monitor bank, displaying views from 24 or 36 cameras. After hours of watching those screens, inattention could lead to an incident going unnoticed. Today’s surveillance systems employ exception-based alarms. If motion is detected, an alert calls attention to a specific camera from the video wall.

Outside, a typical facility has perimeter security on fences and walls as well as video for assessment and tracking.

“[An illegal] action can be detected by the video system on a zone-by-zone basis,” Birch said.

Often, a pan-tilt-zoom camera can assess and track the individual or incident until it is addressed or the individual is apprehended. That system is integrated with the intelligent video management system.

Automotive screening systems

Another recent point of concern is the sally port, the prison entrance where vehicles bring staff and inmates to the facility. Traditionally, each vehicle is checked for contraband or dangerous materials before entering. That often requires physical checks and mirrors to see under the vehicle. Today, undervehicle detection systems can assess the undercarriage and compare that image with the manufacturer’s photo. If a package is stored in the undercarriage, the software could identify it and alert the officer on-site.

A newer threat is delivery of contraband by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), i.e., drones. Drones offer inmates an opportunity to communicate with the outside world, and it is the job of the institution to observe and intercept that drone before any interaction takes place. Some facilities employ detection systems to spot a drone approaching the perimeter and even locate the individual flying that drone outside the facility. In most cases, facilities have to obtain approval to capture a drone and bring it down. Therefore, the best strategy has been to use radar to locate the drone’s launch point and apprehend the operator, rather than bring the drone down.

Behind all of the technology, redundancy is crucial, Birch said. A security system requires a backup system. All of that should be supported by an uninterrupted power supply so systems continue to operate during power loss, which is critical.


Since cabling will run through concrete walls and may need to be accessed or replaced decades later, it should be run through conduit and NEMA-standard enclosures.

Early design and planning is paramount before construction begins. Once the concrete is poured, the system conduit and back boxes won’t be easy to install. Even nature threatens exposed wiring; for instance, the hum of the wire is a mating call for rodents.

“We discovered this a long time ago and made sure that all cabling is in conduit,” Birch said.

Most retrofits involve upgrading outdoor perimeter security because of wear and tear. Another area that often requires retrofits is the interior consoles.

“They go through quite a bit of abuse through normal usage,” Birch said. “It’s a rough environment.”

Perimeter intrusion detection

Founded in 1981, Ottawa’s Senstar Corp. sells perimeter ­intrusions-detection sensors and video management systems, which are deployed in correctional institutions around the world.

“[Intrusion detection systems] are more precise in locating where an intrusion is taking place,” said Stewart Dewar, product manager, Senstar Corp.
Early sensor systems could identify a potential security issue along a fence or wall perimeter within 100 meters; today, that accuracy can be within 3 meters (10 feet).

“The activity can be pinpointed, which then allows the system to point cameras more accurately and quickly home in on an intrusion,” Dewar said. “We are adopting radar-type signal processing to be able to locate precisely where intrusion is occurring.”

Many Senstar systems use radar-type principles to locate the precise location of an intrusion.

Another, more gradual evolution is the growing use of fiber optic cabling for perimeter defense, Dewar said.

“Typically, you’ll find most [institutions] still use a specialized coaxial cable for detection,” Dewar said.

However, Senstar has developed a cost-effective, fiber-optic- based system that, while still at a premium over coaxial-cable-based systems, is a better fit to available budgets. Fiber’s main advantage is that it’s impervious to lightning, Dewar said. That can be especially important in areas such as Florida or the Midwest, which frequently experience intense lightning storms. Fiber costs more, but in a growing number of cases, corrections facilities are willing to pay for that added security.

“People appreciate a system that has zero probability of being damaged by lightning,” he said.

Typically for system installation, Senstar goes to a third party. That’s where contractors have a role. Senstar normally partners with installers to get the system in place for customers. Those installers are often specialized in corrections work. Conducting on-site work requires more time than a typical installation does, and contractors need to account for that. Simply getting access to the work site takes time, the work needs to be scheduled around prison activity, and security escorts have to be arranged.

“Any time you’re working around corrections, it’s very controlled,” Dewar said. “The work proceeds slower than in most commercial and industrial environments.”

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