The Future of Prison Technology: Not As Scary As It Seems?

The former warden of America’s only federal Supermax prison explains why Taser shotguns won’t be a hit in many big houses, but biometrics will.



Last week, we published a slideshow detailing some of the most innovative products geared toward the ever-growing prison industry. But while the products (from Taser shotguns to telehealth systems) are useful, they probably won’t show up en masse in most jails anytime soon.

That’s according to one of the few people in America who knows how to run a Supermax jail. Bob Hood is a security specialist and former warden at the U.S. Penitentiary “Supermax” prison in Colorado–the so-called “Rock of the Rockies.” Facilities pick and choose technology based on the type of inmates, the wardens, and staff preferences, he explains. When it comes to Taser shotguns, for example, “some prison systems will look at that and say ‘is it too intrusive?'” Hood says. “It depends on the individual system, the individual warden. I ran the most secure prison in America, but I’m not big on stun guns.”

One reason for hesitation with devices like Taser shotguns and stun cuffs: potential accidents. “A stun cuff didn’t exist two years ago,” says Hood. “People will say that we don’t want to put that on a thousand inmates –it’s overkill. Someone accidentally zaps [an inmate] and before you know it people don’t want to use
it because of litigation,” Hood explains.

The same goes for other pricey technologies like Morpho Detection’s GE MobileTrace, which can detect explosives and narcotics in 13 seconds flat. It’s useful in certain settings, Hood says, but many facilities will choose to stick with what they know–shakedowns and K9 units.

One area where Hood does think pricey technology will catch on is biometrics. That’s good news for the all-in-one Corrections Biometric Management System (CBMS), which features iris and fingerprint biometric technology. The CBMS manages electronic key
cabinets, secures airlock portals, keeps track of inmate property
storage, monitors visitor appointments, and conducts criminal record checks.

“People look at airports, what’s on media stations, and managers start
thinking about how they can protect society, staff, and each other in
a non-intrusive manner,” Hood says. “We’re going to see more biometric uses [in prisons] once people realize the return on investment.”


For the most part, though, smaller innovations will win out. PharmaJet, a needle-free injection technology, is gaining popularity among prison industry types for inmate vaccinations. “If I had an extra $10,000, that’s where would I want to invest it in 2011,” Hood says. In one fell swoop, the technology nearly eliminates concerns about biohazards, improperly disposed-of needles, and potential needle contraband issues. And since every inmate in the country is inoculated, there isn’t a correctional facility that wouldn’t be at least mildly interested in PharmaJet.

So don’t expect tricked-out Big Brother-style correctional facilities to pop up all over the place. Instead, it’s probably the little things–the things that no one outside of the prison industry would notice–that will gain the most popularity.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more