Drones against prison rape

Cheap model helicopters with video cameras could transform the problem of violence and contraband in prison. Can you say “Panopticon”?

Too many prisons are terrible places. Inmates stab and rape one another, mostly with impunity, to the point where gang membership becomes a survival strategy. Gang leaders maintain the capacity to order assaults both inside and outside the institution. Contraband markets flourish. Misbehavior by corrections officers – both brutality and corruption – takes place behind wall of silence and the shield of impunity.

Part of the reason is that the prisoners greatly outnumber the guards, who in turn greatly outnumber their supervisors. The higher someone gets in the correctional hierarchy, the less contact that person has with the realities of the cellblock. No doubt some wardens are content to be complicit in their subordinates’ misconduct – if not out of sympathy (almost all of them started out as line correctional officers), then to maintain labor peace – but surely most would prefer to run more humane and lawful institutions. Most prisons now have surveillance cameras; as a result, those who want to commit assaults or deal contraband simply identify locations where the cameras do not point.

The revolution in information and communications technology, plus the fad for high-tech model airplanes, offers an important piece of the solution to this apparently intractable problem.

For a few hundred dollars, you can buy a toy chopper (controlled from your laptop or smartphone) equipped with one or two HDTV cameras and a transmitter. The devices are a foot or so across, weigh around a pound, make about as much noise as the cooling fan on a computer, and fly for an hour on a battery charge.

Now imagine a prison with fifty or so of those devices flying pre-programmed but more-or-less random patterns, their cameras transmitting to a bank of monitors watched by two or three officers (better yet, monitors in a remote facility watched by two or three members of some other union) and recorded. Suddenly no place is safe from surveillance. If the watchers have direct communication with the shift commander, it will be possible to intervene immediately; even if not – even if there are no live watchers at all on some shifts – the evidence will be there, and available to the warden. No wall of silence, no impunity for inmates or staff. Fewer assaults, a much smaller contraband market, confiscation of illicit cell phones use by gang “shot-callers,” and much less need for punitive “administrative segregation” (aka “The Hole”) or the even-more-horrible (criminal in my view) “SuperMax.” Cost: trivial.

Can you say “Panopticon“? I was sure you could.

No, I don’t expect it to happen. But if it doesn’t, the onus of the continued crimes and illicit transactions is squarely on the corrections commissioner. Nothing is stopping it but lack of imagination and determination.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

22 thoughts on “Drones against prison rape”

  1. are the rooms in prisons high enough to put a drone out of harm’s way? Can a drone get from one room to another? (I’m not talking about cells, of course, but of places prisoners congregate where bad things can happen – work spaces, dining halls, etc.)

  2. As video cameras become ever smaller and cheaper, it is probably inevitable that we are all going to be on candid camera an ever-larger portion of out lives. In that context it seems logical that prisons will be subject to intensive video surveillance. (How far along is that process now? It it increasing?) That said, it is not obvious why relatively expensive, complex and fragile drones should be the heart of the system. Even if they are quiet, it is hard to believe that they will go unnoticed inside buildings, and especially in nooks and crannies. You go with 50 drones in your prison; I will use the budget in mine for several times that many fixed cameras (aggressively adding problem spots), supplemented with a handful of drones. I suspect I will monitor my prisoners better and more cost-effectively.

    1. “Expensive”? Since when is a few hundred dollars’ worth of capital “expensive”? What does a fixed camera cost? I’m indifferent in principle to which system is used, but I’d be surprised if cheap mobile units didn’t have a role.

      1. I do not have numbers to cite; I rely on what I believe to be common sense principles. On that basis, however, I will assume until shown otherwise that hard-wired cameras mounted on walls are significantly simpler to operate and life-cycle cheaper than ones that fly through the air and require constant remote operation and monitoring. Also, as John notes, operating these things **indoors** in buildings not designed for that could be a serious challenge.

  3. I would love it if our society were to have an awakening about our pervasive violence, in and out. We have a few political leaders who are trying to be smart on crime, like Kamala Harris, but not enough of them yet. And we could be doing so much more on prevention, like say if we had universal pre-school and we could address the family and community issues that lead to full prisons.

    Meanwhile, I’m not sure drones could make anything worse, and maybe they could use that technology that the naked scanners at the airport are supposed to have, so that you see an abstract person-shape, to address privacy issues. (I hate having my picture taken, and I think the more we can treat prisoners like people, the more like people they will act, safety first of course.)

    Also, we could try … Prozac? Therapy? Less crowding? All of the above?

    1. While prisoners are, I think, entitled to a little bit of privacy, this kind of defeats the purpose of the proposal, to be able to *identify* who commits an act of violence within the prison.

      I think we might make a greater effort to distinguish between prisoners with a record of crimes of violence, and those without, and segregate them. More use of lexan and bars could help, too: You need a certain amount of social interaction to stay sane, but it doesn’t have to involve being able to touch other people, just see and talk with them.

      But, mainly, we need to make a lot fewer things illegal in the first place. We need, desperately, government that has a more modest idea of what it’s entitled to issue orders concerning.

      1. Of course one would want to i.d. the aggressors. But I still think victims have a right to privacy. Out in the “free” world, they get to decide if they want to stand up in court and say SoandSo did x, y, and z to me. I wouldn’t say that prisoners should be able to impede a prosecution, but I think they still have a right of privacy. This is extremely important. I am sure there is a way around this problem, since the whole point of a prison is that inmates aren’t just wandering around in them.

        Having said that, I agree with you that there are many other ways to prevent violence that we could and should try first.

  4. Mark, you’re forgetting that it is also a great way to drop contraband over the wall. I think that this is a more likely scenario than yours.

  5. Whatever form it takes, stopping prisoner abuse first has to become a priority for those who make, and implement, our laws. I think the political aspects of our, “soft on crime,” charge will be more difficult to overcome than the technological aspects of how we can reduce inmate abuse.

  6. Here’s the underlying problem with all schemes for universal or random surveillance:
    fifty or so of those devices flying pre-programmed but more-or-less random patterns, their cameras transmitting to a bank of monitors watched by two or three officers..”
    Mass surveillance simply creates too much data to process in real time. Once a crime has been committed and discovered, you can backtrack through the surveillance, which is useful. I assume that the discovery is the problem in prisons for anything short of murder.

  7. Cameras are really cheap now, and so is hard drive space to store them. Why not just put cameras everywhere? You could hear a drone coming, but if cameras were everywhere you would be certain you were being watched.

    1. This is what I was thinking. And why isn’t every square inch of a prison under surveillance? I’m sure there are good answers to this. What about inside cells? Are there privacy rights I’m not aware of? I’ve always felt the worst thing about prison would be the other inmates, so I might welcome the sense of security.

  8. A grisly murder in the Oregon state pen caused me to ask a former chief justice here why the state didn’t have RFID tags in hardened wrist bracelets on every prisoner, guard, and visitor at all times, with scanners in all spaces and portals with constant monitoring so that the location of all persons at all times in the prison would be known. The savings in payments for sex crimes by guards to female inmates alone would probably pay for it.

    1. Did he answer you? Or are you writing this from the pen yourself, having been convicted of insolence because you asked?

  9. The current generation of drones has very short flight times, which complicates things a bit. You could probably get the same effect by stringing conduit along ceilings. And of course you would need to have suitable sanctions for disabling a camera.

    But all of this really starts with the assumption that the powers-that-be want to reduce the level of pseudorandom brutality in prisons. And that (see all the jokes about prison rape that appear when someone famous-yet-wimpy faces time behind bars) just doesn’t seem like a good assumption. Sometimes I imagine that the US might be a healthier society if we institutionalized prison violence and made it official, with floggings and so forth. The outsourced version we have now lets us claim plausible deniability (while not-so-secretly glorying in torture) and at the same time despising both the victims of prison violence for being weak and the perpetrators for being brutish.

  10. Whether the cameras are fixed in place everywhere, or drones are used, isn’t the issue who is monitoring all the footage? Security cameras are useful afterwards to identify perpetrators and victims, but if there is real time monitoring of the cameras at all times, isn’t that where actual humans would have to be used?

    1. See my point above about using RFID tags and readers rather than video. By using such readers, we would generate a data stream that is fantastically more compact, but surprisingly useful. The ability at any moment to locate all RFID tags within a facility is quite useful for many purposes, not just penal/criminal. But since we are talking about that setting, it’s worth noting that a omnipresent data record for a big facility that shows the travels of each person throughout the day, and also shows each instance when people were in the same place at the same time, who joined them, how long they remained together, etc. but NOT what they said, will be very useful but cheap. You can probably store a years worth of records for a big prison in the space required for a day’s worth of video, and it would be quickly searchable and wouldn’t ever require a human to sit through boring video streams to use.

      Rather, for any person or place of interest, you could type in a search string and immediately get a result showing , for any given string, all the persons who entered tat place and how long they stayed, and who was with them and where and when they went next; similarly, you could search on prisoner XYZ’s number and you could get a complete itinerary of their stay in the prison since they first put on the bracelet with the RFID tag to the present …. Every time they pass a ubiquitous reader, and the readers are very cheap, it would simply register their transit past, enabling you to know with precision exactly who meets with who, and for how long, where, etc. something bad happens to XYZ, you simply search the database for the period between when XYZ’S was fine and when XYZ was hurt, and you have a ready list of suspects and witnesses. THEN you access the videotape records.

      1. I wonder whether rfids in a prison environment would have the same kind of effect that anti-theft systems did for cars, namely changing attack methods in really bad ways. Perhaps there are RFID bracelets that are sufficiently hardened to resist damage removal without encouraging grievous harm to extremities as an alternative. Same thing for internal versions.

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