Correctional administrators juggle a daunting number of priorities every day. Organizations must keep staff, inmates and the public safe, effectively operate institutions, preempt disorder and criminal activity, be accountable to stakeholders, meet industry standards, manage staff, allocate resources, administer tight budgets, respond to emergencies, collaborate with law enforcement, and plan for the future.
To meet these challenges, agencies can no longer rely on bits and pieces of information, anecdotal impressions and human interpretation. Decision makers must act on a complete understanding of the facts and highly dynamic variables both internal and external to the organization. Information is the critical foundation for proactively meeting the mission and strategic planning.
In corrections there is no shortage of data. It pours in from a multitude of disparate sources, some paper, some electronic. In many cases there a lack of integration and the data is flat – collected but not analyzed. Where this is the case, one could say the agency is data rich but information poor. Magnify that by the fact that the demand for more and more data continues to grow.
Fortunately, all Departments of Correction are using automated inmate management and other systems to varying degrees, providing the essential platform to move forward and turn data into actionable intelligence. Advances in next generation technology are creating opportunities for agencies to transform their business processes and capitalize on the wealth of amazing predictive and data analytics tools that are readily available and widely deployed in the law enforcement field. Some Departments of Correction have already taken advantage of these powerful tools and are at the forefront of introducing the technology to the correctional community.
There are many parallels between corrections and our counterparts in the law enforcement field in terms of priorities, challenges and the need to manage and analyze information. Success depends largely on the quality of intelligence information and staff’s ability to connect the dots. Law enforcement uses a multitude of technologies that fall under the umbrella of data analytics. The common thread in these technologies is that they link and analyze seemingly unrelated data to identify associations, patterns, and trends. There are nuances and some degree of interchangeability between the terminology and various technologies. Several related technologies may even exist within the same application. Most systems employ the use of data mining to extract data and dashboard technology to display it.
Data analytics allow agencies to quickly identify trouble spots, success and opportunities. It offers administrative applications such as evaluating performance measures, staff deployment and budget utilization, as well as security, inmate management and investigation applications. Imagine not having to ask staff to compile reports and statistics on a regular basis to determine if external and internal performance measures and security objectives are being met.
Data mining uses sophisticated data search capabilities, statistical techniques or computational algorithms to discover and extract patterns and relationships, typically from very large and/or complex sets of raw data. The data sources may be within one database or across multiple databases. Data mining is akin to digging through mountains of data to reveal correlations that would likely be impossible for a human to do.
Forecasting, or Predictive Analytics, uses data mining and statistics to analyze facts and discover patterns to make predictions about future events. Trend analysis refers to extracting and analyzing data to detect patterns and changes over time to identify trends. Links analysis identifies associations and relationships between disparate data relative to individuals, groups, incidents, and other factual information, which may not be apparent from isolated pieces of information. A multidimensional view can make "big picture" issues and strategic planning needs clear.
For example, in trend analysis, a sudden spike in property complaints may indicate an operational breakdown or it may be a precursor to a disturbance. Linking information about inmate visits, telephone calls, mail, contraband, and financial transactions could lead staff to identify an inmate involved in illicit activities. Links analysis of property transactions, disciplinary reports, grievances, and chow hall attendance could allow staff to uncover a potential climate issue or disorder. In another example, there may be no apparent connection between staff assaults, time of day, housing units, grievance types, demographics, outside trip scheduling, overtime, and inmate offenses, but if there is actually a statistical correlation the system will find it and perhaps lead you to allocate resources, streamline operations, and plan accordingly.
Specialized data analytics tools can prove invaluable for correctional staff that must identify perpetrators and monitor the climate to avert disorder. In addition to assessing narrative incident information, quantitative analysis technology such as crime mapping and Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, can be employed. GIS capture and analyze any information that is linked to location. GIS integrates relational databases with spatial interpretation to visually depict geographic information, often in the form of maps. GIS allows for interactive queries, crime mapping, and analysis of outputs. GIS shows patterns of where and when incidents are occurring and the populations involved. In corrections, by integrating incidents, disciplinary reports and other factors institutions would have the ability to map out the hot spots and forecast potential disorders. GIS would also allow staff to identify structural vulnerabilities for STG activity, drug transactions, assaults, suicide attempts and numerous other high-risk activities. The predictive nature of the technology allows for prevention rather than reactionary response.
Dashboard technology is the unifying technology that pulls it all together. A dashboard integrates real time data from multiple sources and presents it in a graphical user interface format where it appears to have come from a single source. These systems are highly intuitive, easy to navigate and interpret and require little to no training. They are also highly customizable.
After 29 years with the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Alex Fox retired from his position as director of security technology to launch a private consulting venture. Dorothy Fox served as director of systems development during a 22-year career with the Massachusetts Department of Correction.