Morse Watchmans: Unlocking global prison security challenges 


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When prisons are overcrowded and underfunded, key control helps to ease the burden on prison staff and establish physical security standards, says Morse Watchmans’ Marcey Tweedie.

Nothing exposed enduring issues of global prison management like the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Illness often turned overcrowded close-quarters environments into community and public health hazards for both the incarcerated and prison staff due to lack of protocol and resources for safe social distancing.

According to Philipp Meissner, a United Nations Prison Reform Expert: “An estimated 527,000 prisoners became infected in 122 countries with more than 3,800 fatalities in 47 countries.” 

Besides overcrowding, underfunding causes delays in urgently needed prison infrastructure renovations to accommodate burgeoning populations of the incarcerated.

According to The Global Prison Trends 2020 Report from Penal Reform International (PRI), “there are currently 11 million people in the international prison system and around 102 countries with reported prison occupancy levels of over 110%.”  

PRI also reports that “funding for penitentiary systems generally remains low with expenditures across 54 countries amounting to less than 0.3 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP).”

International prison overcrowding and underfunding leads to a domino effect of systemic, substandard prison infrastructure problems that impacts security and safety both inside and outside prison walls.

Moreover, overcrowding chisels away at the mental health of prisoners. 

Striking a security balance 

Adding to the complexity of prison environments is the challenge of striving to strike a balance between the responsibility of humane fair treatment and duty of care of prisoners, no matter what the offense, with the enforcement of prison policies, rules and security.  

Excessive security enforcement can disrupt the balance of operational rules and security procedures, causing disorderly behaviours and conduct.

This can lead to cycles of disruption and violence among prisoners, which leads to more frequent security enforcement that may either become excessive or perceived as unfair treatment.  

According to PRI’s report, ‘Balancing Security and Dignity in Prisons: A Framework for Preventive Monitoring’, “ensuring safety includes the provision of measures to prevent and respond to fires or other emergencies and appropriate working conditions for prisoners and staff.”

This includes external physical security of the buildings’ physical structure and perimeter and procedural security as to how prisoners are allowed to move around the facility internally and externally. 

Prison safety and security technology 

Creating secure and safer international prisons and balancing the prisoner to staff ratio requires setting international standards for prison reform in the long term, initiatives by both the UN and PRI as well as many other international grassroots criminal justice organisations. 

While prison reform is ongoing and takes time for changes to be made, in the short term, each prison system must maintain safety and meet their country, state or republic compliance regulations through appropriately administering security policies and protocol.

Physical security technology, such as electronic key control systems, plays an integral and important role in prisons worldwide because it helps to achieve the long term goal of setting prison security standards; it operates the same way with the same purpose for every corrections facility. 

According to an October 2023 article from Australia’s The Age, a prison guard’s keys were stolen and inmates were hospitalised after ‘affray’ inside a juvenile prison at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in central Victoria, Australia.

As a result, three youths were hospitalised and others were administered first aid.

There was an investigation as to how the prisoners stole the guard’s keys and concerns centred around staffing shortages in Victorian prisons. 

Reinforcing perimeter and procedural security 

Even when there are prison staffing shortages, key control solutions provide physical security for keys and assets, access control and accountability for jail cells, weaponry arsenals, storage areas and prisoner transport vehicles without the risk of over-enforcement.

Key control reinforces both perimeter and procedural security by keeping keys out of the hands of prisoners, limiting the time that the keys are available and by keeping them stored and secured within a tamper-proof electronic key control cabinet. 

The benefits of the implementation of key control systems in prisons globally includes access control to keys and assets to be used and obtained by only authorised individuals and only when needed.

Electronic key control systems record every key transaction, leaving audit trail reports available at any time to help mitigate misuse of keys and limit access to assets stored behind lock and key, such as weapons contained in armouries or arsenals, knives used for meal preparation stored in kitchen cabinets and tools such as hammers and crow bars stored in mechanical closets. 

Mitigating insider threats 

According to an NBC news report, another prison “insider” incident involving keys occurred at Clark County jail on 24 October 2021 in Jeffersonville, Indiana, US when male inmates allegedly bought a key to the women’s wing from one of the jailers for $1,000.

As a result of this security breach, “twenty-eight female prisoners filed two federal lawsuits after they were subjected to a ‘night of terror’ by the male inmates.”

The lawsuit filed with the US District Court of Indiana alleges they were threatened, intimidated and sexually harassed and assaulted. 

Serious insider threats, such as the Clark County jail incident, can be significantly reduced with electronic key control systems in correctional facilities because the chain of custody for authorised use of keys and the time allowed to use them can be pre-programmed into the key control system.  

When shifts and prison security personnel change, the key control system will dispense keys only to individuals who are currently on shift at specific times and only for their specific keys.

Once a key user enters their credentials and they are verified, the keys they are authorised to use light up and can be withdrawn from the system.  

The return time can be programmed to be a limited amount of time so that the risk that keys are stolen by prisoners is diminished.

When keys are late being returned, alerts notify administrators so immediate action can be taken.  

To further prevent the risk of insider threats, key inventory management systems can be programmed with multi-factor authentication.

For example, the keys to a women’s detention and incarceration area, or any other highly restricted area, can be programmed to be in custody of only a select few authorised prison staff members.  

With multi-factor authentication, the keys will not be released to anyone until credentials from multiple authorised users for those keys are entered and verified.

Multi-factor authentication is especially important as it documents all key transactions which are recorded by the electronic key control system’s software, leaving audit trails, which can be downloaded and emailed at any time; this not only verifies accountability, but also meets compliance regulations required by law. 

Key control systems are a reliable source of physical security technology for prison systems worldwide. They are cost-effective and prevent incidents of theft, damage and liability.

When prisons are underfunded, overcrowded and short-staffed, electronic key control systems can bridge the gap to help ensure safety inside and outside prison walls and help to ease the burden on prison staff to achieve orderly processes when implementing physical security policies and procedures. 

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