States explore tech solutions to prison staff shortages

Drones and artificial intelligence could allow them to operate prisons with fewer correctional officers.
In this April 15, 2015, file photo, is High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

At least two states have explored whether high-tech solutions, including drones and artificial intelligence, could allow them to operate prisons with fewer staff.

Charles Daniels first pitched the idea to state lawmakers in Nevada last summer when he was serving as director of the state Department of Corrections. In November, Nevada officials briefed Montana’s Criminal Justice Oversight Council on the concept.

The search for new technologies comes as state prison systems struggle to fill vacancies, the result of a workforce shortage that grew worse during the COVID pandemic.

“The Montana DOC is continually exploring new opportunities and technologies — like drones — to identify potential solutions to its operational needs,” Carolynn Bright, communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections, said in an email.

In some states, the shortage of prison workers has reached a crisis stage.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) declared a prison staffing state of emergency in August. In November, 300 National Guard members were deployed to backfill vacancies in Florida’s prison system.

The Montana State Prison, with more than 1,500 inmates, currently has a 40% staff vacancy rate. As of November, the Nevada Department of Corrections had nearly 900 open positions as of November, and one facility closed because of the shortage.

“We’re trying to think outside the box to how we can cover all these staffing shortages to keep everything safe and secure in the facilities, both for our employees and for the offenders,” Lisa Lucas, deputy director for support services of the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in her November presentation to Montana officials.

Nevada prison officials have tested elements of a “corrections command and control platform” offered by Motorola Solutions, that incorporates live video streams, thermal cameras, geospatial mapping, location tracking bracelets worn by inmates and even drones to give prison staff a real time view of what is happening in a facility.

Lucas told Montana officials they had not calculated how many staff positions the technology could replace.

Sam Rabadi, a Motorola Solutions senior consultant, said in an interview that the platform his company is selling provides “immediate eyes on the scene, immediate situational awareness — especially when you do have staffing shortages.”

The Motorola Solutions technology relies heavily on cameras enhanced by artificial intelligence that can identify fights or other disruptions in a particular area of a prison and immediately alert staff.

“Our artificial intelligence uses video analytics to focus your attention on what matters most,” Rabadi said. “It’s learning the scene and what’s normal and what’s abnormal.”

The integrated security and surveillance system also includes drones that can patrol a prison perimeter or launch in the event of a critical incident to give prison staff a bird’s eye view of what is happening.

“These technologies really can make a difference in sort of being a force multiplier,” Rabadi said, adding that Motorola’s work in correctional settings is a “newer environment for us.”

The staffing crisis in Nevada prisons came into sharp focus in September when a convicted bomber escaped unnoticed from the medium-security Southern Desert Correctional Center near Las Vegas. He was later recaptured.

“We honestly didn’t know that he was gone for four days,” Lucas, the Nevada DOC deputy director, told Montana officials.

According to media reports then, guard towers at the prison had not been regularly staffed for two years. In response to the escape, then-Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) demanded Daniels’s resignation — a few months after Daniels’s pitch for new technology.

During her Montana presentation in November, Lucas indicated that her agency planned to include elements of the Motorola Solutions technology package as part of a $240 million I-T budget request to the legislature for 2023.

But a Nevada DOC spokesperson recently said the proposal is now on hold.

“At this time we are at a pause on this subject and have no further comment,” Deputy Director William Quenga said in an email. “We have a new Governor and many changes to come.”

Bright, the Montana corrections spokesperson, also deferred further comment.

“At this point, our efforts are exploratory,” Bright said.

Montana House Speaker Matt Regier (R) said in a December interview about the upcoming legislative session that he had not been briefed on the idea but was interested in the use of drones.

“I’m very intrigued,” Regier said.

The staffing shortages have also prompted calls for pay raises for prison staff. Pay for an officer at the Montana State Prison starts at $19.01 an hour, according to job postings. In Nevada, the starting pay for a correctional officer trainee is $46,500.

Efforts to reach leaders of the union that represents Montana corrections workers were unsuccessful.

In a statement, Harry Schiffman, president of AFSCME Local 4041, whose members include prison workers in Nevada, said: “While technology serves as an important tool in any workplace, it’s never a substitution for a robust, solid workforce. Any new technology will ultimately require staff to implement and sustain, and workers must have a say in any changes to our working conditions.”

The idea of addressing staffing shortages with technology has also prompted criticism.

“To go techy on something that’s as important as this is the wrong way to go,” said Mercedes Maharis, a longtime prison reform advocate in Nevada. “It’s not creating positive relationships, it’s saying ‘You’re less than human and we’re going to treat you as an object to track.’”

Maharis said that instead Nevada should be looking for ways to restructure its prison system and reduce the number of inmates. Currently Nevada prisons hold nearly 10,300 inmates.