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May 21, 2008 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Why haven't (or to what extent have) prisons embraced video technology?

From time to time I hear about prison violence, and it disturbs me. Seems to me that prison fucks people up a lot more than it helps them, and that can't be much good for society.
But I'm surprised that cctv cameras haven't revolutionised prisons. Simply install cameras to cover every square inch of space in the prison, and if any inmate is caught breaking the rules they are taken to solitary confinement. No beatings from the guards, no exceptions. Wouldn't this be a great idea?
We have the ability to construct the Panopticon yet as far as I know, it just hasn't been taken. Am I wrong? Or are my ideas just wildly impractical for a few obvious reasons? And just how are prisons being reformed for the 21st century, or are they not?
Thanks in advance.
posted by greytape to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For one thing, having a camera (or more likely multiple cameras) to monitor every cell, hallway, workshop, bathroom, dining hall, closet, and so on would not be cheap, would generate hundreds or even thousands of video feeds, and with that many cameras, at least a few would be broken at any given time so there would still be holes in the system. I do not know if outside of conversations with their lawyers inmates have any right to privacy in prison but it may be another concern.
posted by TedW at 10:23 AM on May 21, 2008

If there were cameras everywhere, the inmates who wanted to cause trouble would just develop more distraction techniques so the "real" troublemakers could do what they wanted. You still can't have physical guards in all places at all times to break up all fights (or whatever).
posted by jozxyqk at 10:26 AM on May 21, 2008

As TedW said, creating, maintaining, and monitoring a massive security system like that is extremely difficult and expensive. It's technically possible, because casinos cover every square inch of their floors with cameras and have enough people to monitor them in real time, but they have a huge monetary incentive to do so. Prisons don't have that kind of budget.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:28 AM on May 21, 2008

Quite a bit of violence and rule breaking in prison does get captured by the cameras. Just because the prisoners are under surveillance doesn't mean they are going to act rationally. Kind of in the same vein as people who surf porn sites at work even though they know that the company's IT department is monitoring everything. When people are pigeonholed and caught up in their aggressions/passions, they aren't really going to be thinking about consequences. The cameras just make easy work of identifying perpetrators rather than really serving any 100% deterrent that your question implies.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:31 AM on May 21, 2008

Solitary confinement is not the answer.
posted by HotToddy at 10:37 AM on May 21, 2008

We have the ability to construct the Panopticon

For one thing, having a camera (or more likely multiple cameras) to monitor every cell, hallway, workshop, bathroom, dining hall, closet, and so on would not be cheap

The concept of the panopticon is not that every space is observed at all times -- it's that the inmates can never be sure if they're being watched or not, so they will internalize the watching and police themselves. So it wouldn't actually require working cameras covering every space -- some percentage of the cameras could be fake, as long as the inmates didn't know which ones.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:47 AM on May 21, 2008

The panopticon is not about prisons. The people in prisons have demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to internalize the watching and police themselves. They have left the panopticon. Society - at least the part of society that makes the rules about what happens in prisons - doesn't care about these people or whether they do violence to each other, it appears to me.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:53 AM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Vaguely remember a new expose where five or so inmates enter a small room, maybe an elevator. Suddenly a cloth is placed over the camera. Can't tell who covered it from the angle. Four of the inmates beat the poop out of the fifth one. Door opens, four inmates out, one inmate beaten. Can't tell who did what. You could punish all of them. But you can see how this would play out over and over again. And I imagine the prisoners would figure out the holes in the system pretty quickly. They have nothing better to do all day and every incentive to do so.
posted by squink at 11:10 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the most frustrating pieces of video I've watched in a while was Gladiator Days, which is basically the CCTV footage of a man being murdered in prison. The attackers know the camera is there, know the guards are coming, and do what they want before they can be stopped. When you're in for life, 30 days of solitary doesn't mean that much.
posted by nomisxid at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2008

My completely uninformed impression is that tolerating prison violence in the USA is fairly institutionalized and there is little to no incentive to put resources into protecting inmates from each other.
Prisons fulfill many functions, and if judging by actions instead of by words, rehabilitation is near the bottom of the list. No-one who is anyone is interested in helping prisoners. It's cheaper to leave them to sort out their differences among themselves than try to be the school teacher.
A huge chunk of the country thinks criminals should rot in prison, if not be put to death, and that prison rape is comeuppance for your crimes.

Prison operation culture differs country to country. There are countries where comparatively, there isn't much prison violence. So it can be done, but there seems no will to do it here.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:26 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Prison in the US is about warehousing people and punishing them, while making a profit for private corporations. There's very little incentive (either from the prison side or from taxpayers) to make them anything else. Inmate-on-inmate violence is just part of the deal. I dare say, if you asked people on the street, a good many of them would tell you that the knowledge of violence in prison serves as a deterrence to would-be perpetrators.

And, yeah, all those cameras, monitors, etc. are expensive. We can't have taxpayer dollars spent on such luxuries.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:12 PM on May 21, 2008

ADX Florence Prison in Colorado might be a good subject of study for you.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:18 PM on May 21, 2008

This is basically what happens in supermax prisons. Ugh.
posted by wemayfreeze at 4:43 PM on May 21, 2008

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