Direct Supervision and Records Automation

Instead of typical jail cells with steel bars, the Knox County Detention Facility incorporates direct supervision through the use of a computerized justice management system.

by / July 31, 1995
Aug 95

Level of Govt: County

Function: Corrections

Publish Solution Summary with story?: YES

Problem/situation: Jail population growth has increased the strain on manual record-keeping systems.

Solution: Automated records management systems help produce safer jail environments and fewer lawsuits.

Jurisdiction: Knox County, Tenn.; Forsythe County, N.C.; Pima County, Ariz.;

Vendors: Perceptics Corp.; Westinghouse; Spillman Data Systems Inc.; DEC; Sun;

Contact: Buddy Burkhardt 615/281-6700

By Raymond Dussault

Special to Government Technology

Looking more like Melrose Place with a very high fence than a jail, the new Knox County Detention Facility in Knox County, Tenn., has largely eschewed bars, replacing them with bar-coded wristbands and a state-of-the-art, computerized information management system.

"In just a few years this county has gone from horse and buggy, pen and paper jail management to rocket-ship technology - everything from the toilets to the telephones is fully computerized," said Buddy Burkhardt, the data communications engineer hired to acclimatize correctional officers with the new technology.

The 270,000 square foot, $33 million facility will eventually house 694 minimum - and medium - security inmates in five buildings, and at every level of management the new jail takes advantage of modern technological innovations. The information technology package includes live-scan fingerprinting, an automated fingerprint identification system, digitized mug shots and computerized inmate and records management.

The $6.5 million system, designed by Perceptics Corp., a Westinghouse subsidiary based in Knoxville, is expected to reduce costs, provide an unheard of level of records integrity and increase the safety of both officers and inmates.

The new detention center, which was opened in November of 1994, is not the only jail to use automation, but it is an example of a fully integrated jail management system. Another example - the Forsythe County Law Enforcement Detention Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., designed by Utah-based Spillman Data Systems Inc. - came online in June of 1995. Costing $48 million, it will eventually house 1,016 inmates.

"From what I have seen in my travels around the country," said Bryan Sturgill, a law enforcement specialist with Perceptics, "all jail management is heading toward some level of automation. While some people are slow to accept the new technology and others are constrained by their budgets, the rapid growth of inmate populations is making the use of automated information management systems imperative."


From 1983 to 1993, the number of inmates housed in the nation's local jails rose by 106 percent, then jumped again, adding 30,638 prisoners in 1994 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Today the total average local inmate population hovers at near a half million.

Knox County is attempting to deal with this human tidal wave through innovation and automation.

Applying the relatively new concept of direct supervision inmate management, the Knox County facility favors open space over traditional cells. The only visible means of security is a 10-foot high chain link fence surrounding the grounds, and barred windows.

Inmates are housed in pods containing up to 48 prisoners, and each pod is supervised by two jailers seated at a horseshoe-shaped control panel. While inmates roam freely about their pod and have access to a variety of apartment-like amenities - they can do laundry in the pod's washer and dryer, watch television, enjoy telephone usage and help themselves to beverages from a soda fountain - they are under constant supervision from the pod's officers, a unit supervision post and a computerized central control room.

The central control room is enclosed with bullet-resistant glass, and the entire facility can be controlled from there by jailers using a touch-screen computer. Intercoms and telephones are under the central room's control, doors can be locked or unlocked and video cameras turned on and off, or panned for a better view, simply with the touch of a jailer's finger.

Each inmate wears a bar-coded wristband that is also keyed into the central computer system and contains each inmate's physical description, name, picture and prisoner number, used to keep track of inmate location, visitations, library use, medical treatment and court appointments, and has allowed the facility to develop a completely cashless inmate society.


Without cash, and with limits set on how much inmates can spend each week, correctional officers hope to curtail contraband problems historically inseparable from jail society. Cashless systems, though not necessarily utilizing wristbands and complete integration, have already met with success at other jail facilities around the country.

"All the inmates' money is taken from them during booking, and it is then placed into an account which they can access by their name," said Ted Martin, information resource manager for the Pima County Sheriff's Department in Tuscon, Ariz. Pima County's cashless jail was created by utilizing a jail management system designed by Spillman.

According to Martin, the cashless system, for all intents and purposes, has eliminated the illicit transactions that once were common at the county jail.

"Not only can we regulate and monitor the flow of cash, but we can also keep track of where inmate cash is coming from and where it is going. The system also allows us to set volume limits on purchases of certain articles, thereby hindering any attempt by the inmates to set up a non-cash bartering system," added the information manager.

Less flashy, but perhaps more important to both Pima and Knox County, is the computerized records management provided by the new jail management systems.


Paper files, the primary source of record-keeping in most local jails today, are dominated by handwritten, sometimes illegible notes on a prisoner's history and behavior. Traditionally, each time an individual was released, even that dubious record was relegated to the depths of archival vaults, minimizing the chance that jail staff could reference a recidivist criminal's past behavior. Through computerization, records are virtually tamper-proof, accessible to jail staff and can be searched for similarities on almost any basis, from types of crimes to time served.

Full access to information means safer jail environments and fewer lawsuits. The system can track patient medical history and special needs, past criminal behavior and whether they are compatible with other inmates.

"If you've got a guy in who turned informant on his buddies, you are obviously going to have problems if you house him with the people he helped put away. Previously, a note to that effect might have been pasted in with a Post-it note, then lost. Now, the information is accountable and in there for good," said Pima County's Martin.

But human beings must still analyze the information, and during the same 10-year period that saw inmate population grow by 106 percent, the staffing at local jails rose by a whopping 156 percent. Some supporters of the trend toward automation believe that computers may one day help to curtail the rapid growth rate of correctional staff. Still, automation companies shy away from touting this potential benefit for fear of fomenting resistance to their products in local unions, and many of those working in the jails deride the notion that computers can replace correctional officers in inmate supervision.

"There may be some minimal reduction in records-keeping staff, said Glenn Pedal, a computer programming analyst with Forsythe County, "but beyond that I don't think any change is likely. This is not like building automobiles, our product is incarcerated individuals and incarcerated individuals are notorious for not staying where you put them. It will always take real people to make sure inmates are where they are supposed to be."

Raymond Dussault is a freelance writer residing in Sacramento, Calif.


The Knox County Detention Facility's customized system utilizes DEC VAX and Sun Sparc computers, and a DEC relational database programmed in uniface fourth-generation language on a wide-area network.