Experts Identify Needs for Addressing Correctional Security Threats

A select working group of 17 correctional officials and security experts from across the country, convened by the National Institute of Justice, ranked 13 security-threat categories in order of perceived importance. More than 90​ percent​ of the experts assigned “high importance” to the problem of insufficient staffing — more than any other threat category. But the experts articulated the largest number of discrete priority needs in the category of contraband — led by needs related to illicit drugs, weapons, and cellphones. Gangs and violence together comprised another top-level problem for institutions, with gangs seen as posing a fundamental security threat by manipulating or otherwise disrupting operations, according to the working group report developed by RAND Corporation.

RAND and University of Denver researchers organized and managed the correctional security workshop, made up of institution administrators, federal agency representatives, and security professionals, as part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative. Key goals of the program were to identify priority needs to guide NIJ’s research agenda and to advance the national discourse on correctional security issues.

Modern security challenges in corrections environments reflect larger social trends. Inside the walls, they are manifested in many ways, including —

Overdose deaths and other substance issues from opioids.
Prison or jail gangs.
An influx of contraband cellphones to sustain inmates’ criminal activities.
Drones delivering contraband over prison walls.
Technology access needed to prepare inmates for reentry.
Cyberattack vulnerability of increasingly internet-dependent institutional systems, such as heating, air conditioning, and communications systems.

To identify priority problems, as well as associated needs or specific requirements to address those needs, researchers first asked the workshop participants to brainstorm areas of need, and then to rank 40 identified needs in terms of priority, each time taking into account both a particular need’s importance, standing alone, and the probability of success of meeting that need. (Thus, a very important need would fall into a lower priority tier if a policy solution did not appear feasible.) The needs were then grouped into five separate themes as well as three tiers, with Tier 1 reflecting highest assigned priority, and Tier 3 the lowest priority.

Significant Understaffing Is a Threat to Security

In many states, correctional agencies are experiencing chronic and severe understaffing. Officer vacancy rates in some states top 45%, according to sources cited in the RAND report. Nationwide, annual turnover in prisons and jails averages 20%, with some states hitting 53% annual turnover. Ultimately, the report said, “inadequate staffing impedes an institution’s ability to deter, prevent, and respond to security threats.”

For state correctional agencies, a lack of the resources necessary for maintaining adequate staffing levels is compounded by a lack of national staffing standards needed for agencies to make a compelling case to legislatures for additional resources. The working group thus called for research to develop models pointing to optimal staffing levels.

A point of emphasis for the working group, in the staffing area, is the critical dynamic between correctional supervisors and officers, which informs institutional culture and impacts security. Supervisors are often prevented from performing adequately because they are forced to fill in for absent officers and because they are spread too thin as they supervise officers, undermining their effectiveness. The working group identified a need for better training of supervisors to engage staff, as well as a need for research into the short- and long-term effects of supervisor shortages.

Contraband in Many Forms Is Saturating Correctional Environments

Contraband in the form of drugs, cell phones, and weapons are common in prisons and jails, the working group reported.

New Drugs, More Drugs Imperil Correctional Institutions

The epidemic of drugs behind bars is worsening with the introduction of substances that are more letha​​l and harder to detect. The working group report noted that more than half of state prisoners and two-thirds of sentenced jail inmates meet the criteria for drug dependence. Inmates spend significant time searching for drugs; drugs hinder rehabilitation; overdose deaths are on the rise; and some drugs cause dangerous reactions affecting institutional and staff security. The working group identified synthetic cannabinoids as well as opioids, including fentanyl, as the most problematic drugs currently in prisons and jails. Exposure to fentanyl is of special concern because small amounts can be lethal when inhaled or absorbed. Staff members as well as inmates are at risk of exposure.

The working group called for a number of actions and research initiatives to detect drugs in the mail, protect mail-handling staff, digitize correspondence, and identify specific drugs, among other innovations.

Cell Phones Facilitate Inmate Misconduct and Crimes

Many correctional administrators described contraband cell phones as their most pressing security concern, the report said. A threat to both institutional security and public safety, cell phones are used to plan crimes, escapes, and attacks on staff and to operate criminal enterprises. Use of contraband cell phones has become so widespread, the report noted, that the head of the Federal Communications Commission stated, “In the hands of an inmate, a cell phone is a weapon.”

One obstacle to addressing the cell phone infestation is a lack of hard facts on its dimensions — national statistics are not gathered by any official source, the working group report said. Conservatively, tens of thousands of contraband phones are collected every year, but that could represent a mere fraction of cell phones in circulation.

Electronic jamming can block cell communications, but federal regulations bar jamming by state and local agencies, and in general the practice is viewed as imprecise and indiscriminate. A more precise technology, known a “micro-jamming,” has shown promise for blocking wireless signals inside a cell while permitting transmissions as little as 20 feet outside the cell, the report said. But the cost is currently prohibitive. The working group urged that state and local agencies should be able to test jamming technology solutions.

Identified needs include development of technology to mitigate cell phone use and support of research to quantify the cell phone problem in correctional environments.

Many Contraband Weapons Are Built to Evade Detection

Contraband weapons can either be handmade by inmates or smuggled into institutions. Often made of nonferrous material — material without appreciable amounts of iron — to avoid detection, weapons held by inmates pose a direct threat to other inmates and staff. The working group called for cost-effective new technology to detect contraband weapons and block their influx.

Violent Gangs Present an Unrelenting Challenge

Overall, an estimated 13% of the inmate population belongs to “security threat groups” — the study’s term for gangs and other criminal organizations. By far the majority are members of gangs working both in the street and in institutions, the report said. Gang activity is linked to increased violence, including homicides, and gangs often control black markets and seek to manipulate correctional staff.

To better combat and neutralize the security threat groups, the working group called for development of best practices beyond existing concentration, dispersion, and isolation approaches. It also called for assessing the potential of existing systems to identify problematic communication patterns. Large volumes of recorded or written inmate communications go unanalyzed, the working group report noted.

Institutions Vulnerable to Growing Cyber Threats

As correctional institutions’ commitment to information technology (IT) systems expands, their commitment to cybersecurity has not kept up, the expert group found. IT is at the core of critical correctional operations — e.g., security systems, HVAC, communications, health and safety platforms — that in many instances are provided or maintained, or both, by outside vendors. Agencies also often maintain large and vulnerable data sets. Security breaches are increasingly common. To address cybersecurity risks, the NIJ-sponsored working group called for development of best practices to address vulnerabilities and guidance for monitoring threats posed by inmates accessing Wi-Fi operating networks in close proximity to institutions.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2013-MU-CX-K003, awarded to the RAND Corporation (RAND). This article is based on the grantee final report, “Countering Threats to Correctional Institution Security: Identifying Innovation Needs to Address Current and Emerging Concerns” (2019), by Joe Russo, Dulani Woods, John S. Shaffer, and Brian A. Jackson. The workshop informing the grantee report and this article was convened by RAND and the University of Denver (DU) as part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, a project of RAND, the Police Executive Research Forum, RTI, and DU.


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