DVR Helps Essex County Escape the Past

PSE’s video watch tour was made possible with DVR technology.

Electronic security systems at the recently-opened, $416 million Essex County, N.J., Jail Annex offers outstanding examples of digital video recording solutions to day-to-day security concerns but, unfortunately, the project is well known for other reasons.

Correctional-industry insiders are most likely to remember Essex County for protracted project delays. DMJM started designing the project in 1996, but problems including trade union turf disputes pushed back completion until this year. On-site delays included plumbing snafus and the improper cutting of hundreds of door openings at the 2,000-bed facility.

While DMJM and Norment Security Group faced repeated setbacks, it would be a mistake to hold up Essex County as an example of how not to build a jail. Much would be lost, including an innovative design with sophisticated security-electronics systems, not to mention the hard work and accomplishments of the talented professionals involved with the project.

Professional Systems Engineering LLC (PSE) acted as corrections consultant to Norment’s Trentech division, the electronic systems contractor. Contributing designs for security, communications, life safety for cells and critical infrastructure, PSE helped keep systems flexible enough to be current even though they began work on the project over six years ago.

“There are sore spots for anyone, but you can work around them to achieve major things,” says Jerry Forstater, PSE’s chief executive officer. “When we speced the electronics system in 1997 or 1998, everybody had video cassette recorders,” Forstater says. “Panasonic had industrial VCRs and time-lapse recorders, and they even had an automatic tape replacer.”

Nine months later, in the shop-drawing phase, automatically-reloading VCRs were made obsolete by digital video recorders. PSE quickly embraced the superior DVR technology and used it to provide solutions that remain innovative. Not feeling at all like Rumpelstiltskin, Forstater says Essex County’s watch tour system is the only one he knows of relying on DVR to this extent.

“The original concept creator, (former administrator) Ron Manzella, asked us to develop a system that would monitor who went out, when they went out, and who it was,” says Forstater. “Because they wanted absolute verification that the officer who said he was there and didn’t see anything, actually was there as indicated by a recorded history. So we came up with the video watch tour system.”

From an octagonal central control booth in the middle of the facility, officer movements are carefully monitored and confirmed. An officer comes to the floor supervisor’s station and puts his or her finger on a fingerprint reader and supervisor then starts the watch tour process, a software-based DVR system that follows the officer and records his or her intercom use.

Every time the officer hits an intercom, the camera comes up, records it digitally, and archives the fingerprint with the tour date and time. “Every time the officer goes through a wing, stops at the end of a wing, they push the intercom and verbally confirm their position,” Forstater explains. “The person in the control center verifies that the officer is okay, and hit the next button as an acknowledgement.”

A set of DVRs dedicated to record each officer movement. “It protects staff and inmates and bolsters the supervisory function, reducing the threat of lawsuits by inmates claiming that, say, a door was open and they were taken advantage of, and also provides a record to address staff disability claims,” Forstater says.

Actually, the facility has four DVR systems. The watch-tour system is completely separate and staffers can’t access it. There is the archiving system, and also a set of active DVRs used on a day-to-day internal affairs and watching inmates. Finally, the facility directors have their own DVR system, mounted on small roll-abouts in their offices, allowing them to monitor at their own discretion.

All told, the electronic security and communications equipment and infrastructure for the project is valued at more than $25 million. Among the provisions are more than 50 touch screens, 88 bio-script readers, and one of the first examples of IP telephony in a correctional facility. Forstater credits DMJM, Norment and his own team (Diem Nguyen, Jerry Schorn, and Michael Michalski) for success within an often troubled project.

Within the three-story “control stack” centers, officers can view everything in the four wings without CCTV. Paired officers within the centers also overlook each other, an ergonomic control-room configuration that is standard for PSE. “The officers don’t have monitors shining in their face so they can still communicate with each other, but without being right in one another’s face. They can roll your eyes up to the monitors and look down again easily.”

Phone solutions were also up to date. “We saved the client over $100,000 in infrastructure costs by going with UTP cable at a very early time, allowing the IT network to serve as your phone system as opposed to a PBX,” Forstater says. “The advantage is that they can make free calls and don’t have to depend on a carrier for all their phones. Everything inside goes by way of the Internet.”

With the transition into the new facility now underway, Essex County can look to the future and feel like they belong there.