Sep 1, 2002 12:00 PM

Officials at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center (MCAC or Supermax) knew they could better manage their surveillance history if they upgraded to digital video recording technology. What they didn't predict was a resulting substantial decrease in incidents.

Located in inner-city Baltimore, MCAC houses 220 of Maryland's 24,000 inmates. The high-risk population of the prison requires continuous supervision. Inmates are allowed to leave the cells for just one hour each day.

Prior to its upgrade, MCAC's video surveillance activity was limited to black-and-white cameras installed along the facility's perimeter and at key entrances. In June 2001, Forest Hill, Md.-based Benfield Electric installed digital recording equipment and new cameras from Vicon Industries Inc., Hauppage, N.Y. Systems integrator Techmark Corp., Timonium, Md., brought the system online, and continues to maintain it. The upgrade was completed in November 2001.

The facility uses Vicon's vandal-resistant Roughneck V900 miniature dome cameras and V894 miniature corner and wall-mount cameras along the building's perimeter and housing areas. All cameras are color, and many have pan/tilt/zoom capability. Two Vicon Kollector 4050 16-channel networked digital recorders (50 Gb hard drive) document 45-day activity histories. The Kollector units ! and a CD burner ! reside in Warden Randy Corcoran's office. Only Corcoran and key administrators are authorized to operate the Kollector units and burn CDs as evidence of Kollector-documented activity.

The most serious events that occur at MCAC are incidents that require the use of force. Force is needed when inmates do not comply with or attack the staff. Following the video upgrade, the facility's statistics for incidents requiring the use of force declined substantially. In the six-month period between November 2000 and April 2001, for example, MCAC documented 58 use-of-force incidents ! between November 2001 and April 2002, that number dropped to 24. The decline is not a fluke, but rather a direct result of the presence of recording equipment.

"Our decline in incidents indicates that inmates know they'll be held accountable for their actions because of those cameras," Corcoran says. "They won't be able to lie their way out of something. We also have a very small percentage of staff that is not always inclined to do the right thing. The technology helps discourage and detect negative staff performance or a lack of rule enforcement. The cameras and recording equipment encourage enforcement among everyone."

MCAC's 45-day video history helps supervisors ascertain weak links in daily operation. Corcoran routinely burns CDs for supervisors' perusal. "I'll ask a supervisor to review a CD to determine several things: Were security procedures used properly? Did staff wear gloves and hats during meal distribution? Were cell counts and cell inspections conducted properly? Are the right staff members present where and when they are supposed to be? These are all things that may have gone unsupervised in the past, but now we have a candid view of the operation.

"[The] staff used to grant me access through two doors so I could watch what they were doing," Corcoran continues. "When the warden is present, staff might perform at a higher level. The surveillance technology brings the two standards of conduct ! the quality of work performed when I am physically present and when I am not present ! closer together."

Corcoran also appreciates the ease with which he can locate recorded incidences. "No more fumbling around in a room looking through videotapes; I just point and click and bring up the time and date of alleged incidents," he says. "My staff often asks me to replay certain dates, times and cameras to verify complaints from inmates. The system has been very helpful in investigations of complaints and allegations of poor service and poor behavior."

The Vicon surveillance system does more than just document wrongdoings ! it also documents praiseworthy behavior. "The system gives us an opportunity to catch people doing the right thing, too," Corcoran says. "We can identify exemplary performance of staff as they do their jobs. We exhibit their exemplary behavior on a big screen during roll call to educate the rest of the staff."

Even inmates encourage staff to view recorded images; after all, recordings may provide evidence that sway in their favor. Perhaps that's a reason why no inmate has attempted to vandalize a camera. "Inmates feel there is more accountability to both themselves and the staff as a result of this installation," Corcoran says.

Corcoran admits he's a stickler for cleanliness ! and for good reason. Litter can conceal contraband. If staff finds a stray piece of paper on a tier, Corcoran can review the video record and determine which inmate discarded the paper. "The level of cleanliness has greatly improved now that inmates know we can hold them accountable for a discarded piece of paper," Corcoran says. "I can review the entire institution's sanitation level in a matter of seconds.

"Officers can't watch everything 100 percent of the time, but administrators and captains can glance at our monitors to see inmates passing things with what we call 'fishing lines' from one cell to another, " Corcoran continues. "We're pretty sure we're reducing the making and movement of contraband with our use of this video system."

Technology alone can't take the credit for the decline in incidents at MCAC. In addition to implementing video surveillance technology, MCAC has also launched a Quality of Life program that encourages positive behavior with various sanctions, privileges and educational programs. Food and medical services have also been improved.

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