Robert A. Hood is a security specialist with GE Security’s Homeland Protection Division. He has more than 30 years of experience in corrections at the local, state and federal level. From 2002 to 2005, Hood served as warden of the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colo., which houses the only administrative maximum facility in the federal system. Hood recently discussed facility security and operations with Correctional News via telephone, fielding readers’ questions on issues, trends, strategies and solutions in the world of corrections.
Q: Are you enjoying life on the other side of the fence?
A: I’ve got a great retirement package from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, so working in the private sector wasn’t something I needed to do. I saw it as a great opportunity to help people in corrections — conducting facility assessments or leadership conferences — and it’s something I love to do. My role as a national security specialist for GE Homeland Protection is to take my experience in corrections and my knowledge of security and apply them to generate solutions that work for the client and the specific operational environment.
Q: What’s your assessment of ADX Florence as a possible destination for detainees currently held in U.S. detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
A: ADX can hold inmates of any classification level, so it would certainly be the best place to put them, in my opinion. The facility has a capacity of 490 inmates and houses 30 convicted domestic and international terrorists.
Within the federal system, the ADX can employ a range of special administrative measures to ensure operational safety and security. So what’s the difference if you bring in 20 to 30 more detainees from Guantanamo?
Q: Would the government need to change anything at ADX? Could security be better?
A: Security can always be better. But I can’t imagine there are any concerns in the local community, because you already have the worst of the worst locked up there. You might have to designate one housing unit for pretrial detainees, which changes the mission a little and requires different operational policies, strategies and measures that match the altered needs and objectives.
I’m not sure what else you would do to enhance security capabilities there because I think we’ve reached the point where the next step brings complete automation of the facility.
The two previous Supermax prisons in the federal system — Alcatraz and Marion — were in service for about 30 years. In terms of facility life cycles, Florence has already reached the halfway point, so you’ve got to question the economic viability of a massive investment in new security technology.
Q: How does your background in corrections help you in your new role?
A: With 34 years in corrections, I can take my experience, especially from ADX Florence, and apply that in helping people with all levels of security and types of facility, — prisons, jails or community facilities.
Supermax is a microcosm of the challenges faced and solutions employed by small, medium and large facilities around the country. I can walk into a facility and tell within 5 minutes how the place is run. I can talk to any warden or jailer and say you need this or you don’t need that. My background gives me credibility.
If you have been on the facility side, particularly as an administrator, then you are accustomed to the pressures and constraints of budget crunches, staffing shortages, public safety issues and critical incidents. I’ve experienced firsthand the pain and pressure of these constraints and that background allows me to understand that technology may not necessarily be the best-fit solution in all situations.
Q: Has anything changed in terms of the challenges and problems of facility security?
A: The inmate population is changing and becoming more sophisticated. Now, these guys are very familiar with technology, and that presents an additional challenge for corrections administrators and staff.
Obviously public and staff safety is at the top of the list when it comes to security matters and we also have an obligation to protect inmates, but not every place needs to be like a Supermax.
A lack of programs or amenities, or a reliance on draconian and overly intrusive security measures, does have a negative effect on facility operations and outcomes. Inmates involved in programs, connected to their support network or interacting positively with staff, tend to respect the facility and themselves and are less likely to be involved in disruptive or negative activities.
The first question has to be, “What’s the mission of the facility?” Oftentimes, it’s not a surveillance camera or narcotics scanner you need most, but more routine staff/administration visibility with normalized interactions and communication.
The human management element is a significant portion of the facility security package, and it’s a component that is completely free.
Q: How does your philosophy guide assessment and recommendations for facility security?
A: It’s important that you’re not depending so much on technology that you lose sight of your objectives, hinder your mission or negatively impact outcomes.
In evaluating facility security and operations, I try to provide a holistic approach that emphasizes security but supports humane conditions, measures and programs. I try to strike a balance between technological and management solutions, even across different types of facilities. Where technology is necessary, I recommend the least intrusive measures.
Take contraband and drug interdiction; you can choose any number of solutions: permanent narcotics detection installations, routine use of drug-sniffing canines, hand-held scanners or the overt use of trace kits. Again, it depends on your facility, the mission and immediate and end objectives.
The deterrent effect of walking around the facility with a cheap Teflon trace sheet lets inmates know what your doing and can be as effective as many far more intrusive and costly solutions.
On the other hand, one facility, which relied on canine teams to conduct drug searches, found that handheld mobile trace detection devices were able to find substances the dogs missed for various reasons.
In reality, staff visibility, interaction, engagement and communication with inmates provide one of your best tools and should be viewed as an integral part of your security package, just like audio and video surveillance, scanners and other technological measures.
High-security facilities have their place, but they are not necessary for all populations. We can use technology in a balanced and humane way that meets the security and program needs demanded by the mission.
Integrating low-tech measures can prove very effective. I had basic security mirrors installed in housing units at one facility as a way to improve behavior. Inmates that have to look at themselves everyday are more likely to take pride in their appearance and have greater regard for themselves, their quarters and other inmates and staff. It’s just human nature.
Q: Where do technologies, such as video visitation, fit into to this holistic security equation?
A: When visitations are remote, it certainly cuts down on transports, which enhances safety and security and reduces costs. However, I wouldn’t say video visitation is the best fit for every facility because 95 percent of these offenders are coming back to the community.
Video visitation can depersonalize the interaction and decrease the sense of connectedness for inmates, which can create tension and lead to behavior problems that disrupt operations. It’s not a case of one size fits all or of silver-bullet universal solutions. You need to match the technology and other measures to the type and mission of the facility.
In the case of video visitation, combining video visitation with traditional visitation could represent a better fit for some facilities. In a minimum-security setting, for instance, I would see great value in integrating several video visitation units on the secure side, which can provide an inmate management tool to reinforce positive behavior and discourage negative behavior.
In jail situations with significant numbers of pre-trial offenders — where you know less about history and behavior — the integration of remote and conventional visitation can provide operational and inmate management flexibility that recognizes classification, risk/need assessment and past behavior to enhance security and safety.
Q: Are there any technologies on the horizon that could fundamentally impact corrections?
A: There are a lot of varied technologies out there with the potential to impact corrections. While there are certainly ongoing developments and innovations at the margins, many solutions are upgrades or evolutions of existing technologies already mainstreamed and well entrenched in the field.
You can talk about biometrics, imaging, substance detection, access control or motion detection, but basically what you want or need to do depends on your mission. What you can accomplish comes down to economics.
I don’t see any particular technology at the moment with the potential to transform corrections. I would be more focused on the fact that we aren’t using the technology we currently have in the most effective way.
If we flip it around and look at it from a different angle, a better formulation might be to ask, “What technology will allow you to deal with the host of ever-changing pressures, constraints, demands and challenges you face in corrections, from budgets to staffing to inmate demographics?” No single pill can cure all those headaches.
Q: What challenges are facilities currently looking to solve with technology?
A: I’m hearing more and more administrators asking about cell-phone detection and jamming technologies. Illicit cell-phone use is a serious issue for correctional facilities, with inmates able to conduct criminal and gang activities while incarcerated. It is of critical importance to public safety and I think we might see movement in this area as efforts to deploy the technology at the state and local level intensify.
Q: What’s the hot-button technology on the industry side?
A: On the industry side, there’s a lot of interest in biometrics, of course, but I’m also hearing a lot of talk about substance detection and interdiction. There’s a new handheld mobile analysis unit coming online soon that can detect trace amounts of substances across the spectrum from narcotics and explosives to chemical and biological hazards.
Q: How can decision makers best evaluate solutions and technologies?
A: Technology is a tool, so you have to have a way of measuring its value within the specific requirements of your facility. Any evaluation should include the usual hard benchmarks and the soft metrics that are generally not factored into the cost-benefit analysis. People often do a T-bar evaluation that includes price and feature comparisons, which are objective, worthwhile and a necessary part of the process.
Administrators need to go beyond that and conduct a comprehensive assessment that considers a range of other metrics and factors. When integrating any solution or measure, you need to consider your facility, its existing technology and architecture, and staff, and then match your decisions and purchases with your needs and goals.
Q: How can facility administrators educate themselves about new technology products and solutions, and strategies and trends in security?
A: There is always the need for industry conferences and trade shows, which provide great venues for information gathering and are a great resource for education and problem solving. Administrators should also take advantage of their contacts in the field, vendors, manufacturers, contractors and other stakeholders such as criminal justice experts or design professionals.
Inviting vendors to come to you has its upside and downside. While the vendor might be focused on what they have to show you, the visit also provides a great opportunity for you to show the vendor the kinds of challenges, pressures and constraints you are facing. Reaching out to their network of colleagues, who face similar pressures, constraints and challenges, should also be a priority for administrators.
Look at other jurisdictions and visit other types of facilities to see firsthand what is being used, what are the objectives and outcomes, and what works and what doesn’t.
Q: Can the United States learn anything from correctional systems in the international community and the approach of other countries?
A: The Danish prison system, for instance, which is very liberal, is doing some great things and achieving good outcomes. I really commend the Danes and others in Europe for their use of technology, inmate-officer and inmate-cell ratios, facility conditions and environments, and their approach to sentencing and programming, which is focused on rehabilitation and re-entry.
For the most part, other systems just aren’t comparable in terms of sheer population numbers, and size brings its own challenges. But when you look at our incarceration and supervision numbers, and the potential impact of population projections, we really need to consider the ramifications for long-run economics and the implications for public safety and social values. We have to ask ourselves what we can learn elsewhere and apply here.
Other systems recognize that reintegration must and will take place, and for everyone involved in every area of corrections, from judges to architects to administrators to staff, the byword is re-entry. Sentencing, conditions and treatment are oriented to that end. We need to develop and apply better metrics when it comes to the assessment of inmate risks and needs, and facility objectives and operations.
It is my belief that inmates are sent to prison as punishment not for punishment. The process should flow from that, because if you look in the mirror and see an ugly face, that’s what you’re going to get back.