Several state prison systems throughout America are introducing body-worn cameras on some guards, even in environments already covered by thousands of stationary cameras, according to the Associated Press.
After allegations of abuse of prisoners with disabilities, a judge ordered body-worn cameras for guards in a San Diego state prison. California later expanded this to five other prisons.
Following California’s lead, the death of an inmate during a scuffle with guards in an Ohio prison triggered a pilot program at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC).
Ohio’s 28-prison system already has about 6,000 cameras in place. In some areas with stationary cameras blind spots exist; there are also situations in which a body camera could clarify the action between guards and inmates and help get to the truth of whether inmate(s) or guard(s) are at fault, said Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the ODRC.
“When you have cameras that are filming an incident, you don’t have to rely on memory or perhaps that tunnel vision that someone gets when they’re recounting an incident,” she said. “You can just see the totality of it.”
Sometimes stationary cameras cannot show the entire events and they don’t have audio. Body-worn cameras, in addition to audio, can add new camera angles.
The Ohio union representing prison employees is skeptical of the cameras. Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, says the money could be better spent on hiring more guards.
“Right now we’re fighting to keep people employed in the department of corrections because of the tight job market. Should we be putting more money into retention of officers and hiring of officers and hiring of staff, as opposed to allocating money for technology that is just redundant?”
The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has a few questions about the plan, including the circumstances under which guards are allowed to deactivate the cameras and how long the prison system will retain the video, according to Gary Daniels, the chapter’s top Ohio lobbyist. This last question is important, given the state’s two-year window for filing civil liberties lawsuits, he said.
The Georgia Bureau of Prisons piloted this type of concept in 2020 and planned to outfit guards in two prisons in 2021 and another two in 2022.
Since October 2020 Florida uses them in some prisons and has equipped specially trained officers at its 35 prisons with body cameras that automatically turn on when those officers activate stun guns.
New York state began piloting body-worn cameras as far back as 2016 and expanded the test with an $835,000 federal grant. This system, which costs $4.2 million, utilizes about 2,500 body-worn cameras in eight prisons, including the three women’s prisons, with plans to expand.
Virginia is also looking to expand body-worn cameras to supervisors at high-security facilities, some members of teams who enter cells to extract inmates, and handlers of patrol and drug-sniffing dogs.
Wisconsin began outfitting officers at its six maximum-security prisons and one juvenile facility in 2017 after the Legislature provided the agency with an initial $591,400, hoping to reduce staff and inmate assaults.
The agency now deploys about 200 body-worn cameras in the six prisons and about 100 in the Lincoln Hills & Copper Lake Schools juvenile facility, at a cost of about $895 per camera. Prisons spokesperson John Beard said that one downside is the view is sometimes obscured during close-up interactions with an inmate, but the audio is easily heard.
Just as widespread use of body-worn cameras by police officers hasn’t reduced instances of use of force, body-worn cameras in prison are unlikely to have a big impact, especially with the presence of so many stationary cameras, said criminal justice analyst and research scientist for CNA Corp, Bryce Peterson.
Peterson went on to say nearly all prison incidents are already recorded, and blind spots aren’t typically in places where a guard will be present to record illicit activity, including drug sales or a fight. In some prisons, body cameras will have an impact because it’s “a new intervention…sort of a shock to the system,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a long-term cure for these issues.”