Wireless Prison Canteen

A new cashless system automates Florida prison canteen services.

by / December 31, 1996
When Florida made the commitment to remove cash from its 75,000+ inmate population, but still allow canteen purchases of food, tobacco, hygiene and other products, it presented a unique challenge to the state's Department of Corrections, Bureau of MIS staff. With 55 major correctional institutions located throughout the state, and an average of six canteens per institution, the department decided to distribute the computing load of banking, inmate account control, and "cashless" point of sale on to DEC VAX and Alpha platforms running OpenVMS at each institution.

To accomplish this goal, each inmate is issued a color photo ID card
that contains an infrared-masked bar code. With this ID, the inmate has access to $45 of his or her money, which is earned in prison jobs or sent in from relatives. Since most inmates are imprisoned on compounds as opposed to cells, purchases are made at a canteen window from an inmate operator. The inmate passes his or her ID card through the window where the canteen operator slides the card through an infrared bar code slot reader. Once the card is read, the inmate's account is opened. The operator then picks the items called out by the inmate and scans the UPC bar code on the products. When the inmate's order is complete (or the inmate runs out of funds), the account is closed and a receipt is printed.

A unique challenge arose when it became time to automate the canteen function at the Florida State Prison and the 360-cell death row building at Union Correctional Institution. Inmates in these locations are not allowed free movement on a compound because of their dangerous behavior. However, by law, the Department of Corrections must provide canteen services to these 1,200 to 1,500 inmates. Under the manual system it took up to two weeks to fill an inmate order, since the process was very labor-intensive.

To realize a significant time and cost savings, the department designed a system based around three constraints: (1) It is impractical to bring any of these potentially dangerous inmates to the point-of-sale terminal, (2) the inmate's photo ID card is never to be removed from the presence of the inmate, and (3) realtime database updates were needed for inventory and account balances. With these requirements identified, the department made the commitment to utilize radio-frequency data communications (RF/DC) terminals by Teklogix.

With an RF/DC terminal in hand, an inmate operator walks to each cell, scans the inmate's ID card with an infrared bar code pen to open the account, and then scans each four-digit bar code selected from a sheet of about 160 bar codes with item descriptions. A space is provided next to the bar code for the inmate to write in the quantity of each item desired.

Once an item's bar code is scanned, the operator then scans a quantity bar code and repeats the item/quantity scans until the inmate's order is complete. Data returned after each item/quantity scan includes the running account balance, running order total with tax, and last item and quantity ordered. A typical confinement order contains 15 to 20 items and orders are taken about once a week.

Additional RF/DC terminal screens allow for corrections to an order, reviewing of the order prior to order completion, or deleting an order. Once the order has been completed, a receipt -- which serves as a pick ticket -- is printed in the canteen pick area. Items are bagged by canteen workers and the receipt is attached to the bag and stapled shut. At this point, runners carry the bags to the inmate's cell where the contents are checked against the receipt while in the presence of the inmate.

Quick and accurate canteen order processing keeps inmates from becoming restless, which in turn reduces any potential confrontations with correctional officers and other inmates.

Florida's ever-expanding prison population presents new and difficult challenges to the dedicated correctional officers who are in constant contact with the inmate population. The Cashless-Canteen system is an automated data-collection tool designed to help make the correctional officer's -- and the inmate's -- environment safer, as well as save countless hours of office labor required in the days when cash flowed freely on prison compounds.

Other uses for RF/DC in corrections are under evaluation. One possible use would allow a correctional officer carrying a hand-held RF terminal the ability to scan any inmate's ID card and immediately retrieve relevant information on the inmate's status -- such as custody level, job assignment or authorization to a certain area. The officer could also update the database from the prison compound by using a hand-held RF terminal to perform movement control and an inmate count.



Since prison buildings are multi-level, multi-winged, and constructed of very thick steel-reinforced concrete, the popular, non-FCC licensed, 900MHz spread-spectrum radio technology is not practical. The Florida State Prison building alone would require about 40 spread-spectrum RF transceivers for full building coverage. By using FCC licensed, 450MHz narrow-band technology, coupled to a single antenna mounted above the roof, full building coverage is achieved.

The department chose Teklogix's 7025 hand-held terminals and a 9130 Radio Link Controller coupled to a 9200 System Network Controller via fiber-optic cable. The Teklogix RF/DC system is software interfaced to a DEC AlphaServer 1000 4/266, running OpenVMS and Progress 7.3 using the Progress Host Level Interface for "C."

The RF/DC canteen application was written in DEC "C" by in-house programmer Garry Durden. Terminal response time is fast, in spite of heavy RF data flow per transaction. RF performance bottlenecks are not a factor thanks to Teklogix's advanced screen caching and 32-bit RF processing. Data-processing bottlenecks are all but eliminated by the 266MHz, 64-bit DEC Alpha configured with 64 megabytes of memory and DEC StorageWorks RAID Array.

The Teklogix RF/DC system allows multiple hosts and/or applications to run concurrently, thereby eliminating the need to add another RF/DC system to deploy other applications.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Using cash in prisons was difficult and dangerous to both correctional officers and inmates.

SOLUTION: A new cashless canteen system is helping improve safety.

JURISDICTION: Florida State Prison, Florida Department of Corrections.

VENDORS: Teklogix, Digital Equipment Corp.

CONTACT: For more information go to the following Internet sites: and .

A new cashless system is automating prison canteen services in Florida.