What eventually becomes cutting-edge in retail and payments often originates in places that are dedicated to security, not commerce. New technology often starts out at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) or NATO, for instance. Former Israeli intelligence agents or military members have taken the knowledge they gained during their service and contributed to artificial intelligence (AI), fraud prevention and other efforts that do make -- or can end up making -- a difference in the daily lives of consumers. Now, the time might be right to at least consider adding prisons to that mix. Let's not get ahead of ourselves -- there is little chance that any prison system will become a miniature Silicon Valley.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. Many companies seek captive markets--those in which consumers have little choice, like food in a sports arena or cable access in a rural area. But the ultimate captive market is the U.S. criminal justice system, where consumers are captive in both an economic and a physical sense. Traditionally, private companies providing services in prisons have focused on food and personal items, as well as phone calls. These items are often priced at rates incarcerated consumers deem inaccessible--think $21 for a cheeseburger and wings, $31 for a hygiene essentials kit, or $15 for a 15-minute phone call (no small cost when you're earning an hourly wage of between 33 cents and $1.41).
Artificial intelligence–connected sensors, tracking wristbands, and data analytics: We've seen this type of tech pop up in smart homes, cars, classrooms, and workplaces. And now, we're seeing these types of networked systems show up in a new frontier--prisons. Specifically, China and Hong Kong have recently announced that their governments are rolling out new artificial intelligence (AI) technology aimed at monitoring inmates in some prisons every minute of every day. In Hong Kong, the government is testing Fitbit-like devices to monitor individuals' locations and activities, including their heart rates, at all times. Some prisons will also start using networked video surveillance systems programmed to identify abnormal behavior, such as self-harm or violence against others.
Prisons in Hong Kong are testing a variety of high-tech services that will allow correctional facilities to better track inmates, according to the South China Morning Post. The city's Commissioner of Correctional Services, Danny Woo Ying-min, claimed the new services will be used to monitor for abnormal behavior among the incarcerated, prevent self-harm, and operate the prisons more efficiently. The "smart prison" initiative includes strapping inmates with fitness tracker-style wristbands that monitor location and activity, including heart rate. Some facilities will also start to use video surveillance systems that can identify any unusual behavior, fights and attempts to inflict harm on one's self. Correctional Services is also testing robots that will be used to search for drugs in feces from inmates.
On Sept. 5, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced a host of new restrictions on the way its inmates can interact with the outside world as part of what Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called an "all-hands-on-deck approach" to prison safety. Previously, approved organizations on the outside could mail books or other publications directly to inmates, subject to inspection and approval by corrections officials. Now, no such direct donations are permitted. Instead, the Department of Corrections says it's beginning a "transition to ebooks coupled with [a] bolstered DOC library system" in order to fight the flow of illegal drugs into facilities statewide. In addition to banning the direct shipment of books and publications to inmates, the DOC announced it will no longer process inmate mail at correctional facilities; instead, mail will go to a processing center, where it will be opened, scanned, and then emailed back to individual facilities to print and distribute.