May 04, 2023
The use of body cameras in jails and prisons across the country has become increasingly popular in recent years. Many correctional facilities have adopted this technology as a way to increase transparency, accountability, and safety within their facilities. Body cameras in jails and prisons can help improve the overall operations of these facilities in a variety of ways.
One of the main benefits of using body cameras in jails is increased transparency and accountability. Correctional officers are responsible for the safety and well-being of inmates, visitors, contractors, and fellow staff. Body cameras can help ensure that those officers are carrying out their duties appropriately and following proper protocols. By recording interactions between correctional officers and inmates, body cameras can provide a clear record of any incidents that occur. This can be particularly important in cases of alleged misconduct or abuse, where video evidence can help provide clarity and accountability.
While one’s first reaction is that body cameras used in this setting are to monitor staff to prevent misdeeds, it is important to note that the presence of body cameras can also help deter inmates from engaging in violent or disruptive behavior, as they know that their actions are being monitored. Utilizing body cameras by corrections staff across all levels of incarceration greatly improves safety within jails and prisons. Correctional officers often face dangerous situations, and having a video record of these incidents can be invaluable in investigations and court proceedings.
In my experience as a police officer and interacting with jail staff and inmates on a regular basis, it is well known throughout each facility where the “blind spots” are when the facility uses traditional security cameras. Fixed cameras and even pan, tilt, and zoom cameras cannot reasonably cover every angle of every building. It is often in those areas where staff and inmates can be assaulted, commit lewd acts, or otherwise involve themselves in untoward activities. While traditional camera systems do hold some importance, the value of having a roaming camera in the form of a body-worn camera can’t be understated.
Another benefit of using body cameras in jails is improved training opportunities. By reviewing footage from body cameras, correctional officers and supervisors can identify areas where training may be necessary. This can help improve the overall operations of the jail and ensure that all staff are properly trained and equipped to handle their duties. In addition to improving training within the facility in which the original opportunity is observed, a lot of prisons and jails are connected with one another through county, state, and federal agreements. This allows one incident from one jail to be useful to another jail across the country. When reviewing body-worn camera footage, corrections officers can truly put themselves in the shoes of their co-worker and the incident can be debriefed for educational purposes.
During my tenure as an officer in New Jersey, I learned, along with the public, of a great travesty of justice occurring at a local correctional facility. The building was old, had a lot of “blind spots” that were well-known, and had a dilapidated traditional security camera system. There were inmate versus inmate assaults, staff versus inmate assaults, and even the occasional staff versus staff assault. As one can imagine, the vast majority of these problems occurred out of the view of the cameras and, as a result, these issues plagued the facility for years before it was eventually ordered to be shut down by the government in 2021.
During the fallout, many inmates and officers sued the state for a number of different reasons and dozens of corrections officers were charged for committing criminal acts. While it can never be known to be entirely true, it is a safe bet that a lot of these issues would have been prevented (or at least detected) had body-worn cameras been standard issued equipment. Some cutting edge body cameras with forward-thinking technology even have a function of triggering nearby body cameras to turn on and start recording, even without that person’s input. In a situation as I’ve described with this facility in New Jersey, I can safely speculate that an officer utilizing such a body camera may be more mindful of his actions — or inactions — knowing that someone else has the ability to trigger his camera to turn on in the event of a nearby incident.
Despite the many benefits of using body cameras in jails, there are also some potential drawbacks that need to be considered. One of the main concerns is privacy. Inmates have a right to privacy, though somewhat reduced, and body cameras may be seen as intrusive or invasive. To address this concern, correctional facilities must ensure that they are using body cameras in a way that respects the privacy rights of inmates while still providing the necessary level of monitoring and accountability. By utilizing body cameras in an effective way and utilizing secure storage locations, such as encrypted cloud-based storage sometimes offered by a body camera manufacturer, the agency can rest assured that the footage stays “in house”, thereby alleviating any privacy concerns.
Another potential drawback is the cost of implementing a body camera program. Body cameras can be expensive, and correctional facilities may need to allocate additional resources to purchase and maintain this technology. However, the benefits of increased transparency, accountability, and safety may outweigh the cost of implementing a body camera program. In addition, the cost of body cameras is far lower than the cost of upgrading an entire facility’s traditional camera system. And, as mentioned, those traditional camera systems can both be expensive and problematic.
While body cameras can be ordered and shipped directly to the facility, private contractors are often utilized to install traditional camera systems. Having contractors inside a secure facility introduces a new set of problems — are the contractors bringing in contraband? Are the contractors at risk of assault or harassment? Can the contractors be involved in some sort of escape plan? The safety concerns are endless. Body cameras arrive in a box and, if needed, training on how to use them can often be provided by the manufacturer in a more public location outside of the secure facility.
Despite these concerns, the benefits of using body cameras in jails are clear. Increased transparency, accountability, and safety can help improve the overall operations of correctional facilities and provide a safer environment for both correctional officers and inmates. As more and more correctional facilities adopt this technology, it is likely that we will see continued improvements in the way that jails are managed and operated and the quality of incarceration will rise.