Raising the bar on security behind bars
Raising the bar on security behind bars

Jan 1, 1998 12:00 PM
George Partington

Last fall, many Georgians were beginning to wonder, "What's wrong with security at our state prisons?" Three convicted murderers had escaped from two prisons in the span of three weeks, prompting media attention, internal investigations, security procedure audits, and, eventually, solutions.

The first escape happened Sept. 28 at Macon State Prison on a "messy, rainy night," according to Larry Latimer, an engineer in charge of security systems for the Georgia prison system. Two men scaled a wall adjacent to a sally port, which is a gate area in the perimeter fence.

The men did not avoid the detection of the microwave sensors in the area, but they were able to jump over the wall and scramble into the woods just ahead of the single patrol vehicle that continually circles the mile-long perimeter, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Beyond the port areas, the perimeter fence is monitored by sensor wire. Both detection devices are provided by Perimeter Products Inc., Mountain View, Calif.

The men walked the top of the fence on the sidewall of the sally port, a vestibule with two doors that are never open simultaneously. Where the fence meets the port, they "vaulted themselves over the corner where the razor wire was," says Latimer. "They did cut themselves a little bit, but they obviously circumvented the wall of razor wire we have on that outside fence. They were through the parking lot and on their way to the woods before we realized they were already outside the fence."

The official does not see the escape as a failure of the electronic detection equipment; rather, he says, the height of the outside wall of the sally port was at fault. At the port there is a limit to the use of razor wire, because staff and the public move through the area, and "you don't want them to be accidentally cut on the defenses that you are using to delay and prevent an escape," says Latimer.

"What we did to compensate is raise the outside fence higher in order to allow the placement of more razor wire in those areas, making it comparable to what is on the outside fence where we don't have sally ports," he explains. The remedy extends to all 40 Georgia state prisons.

ID card fiasco

Scaling a prison wall is a common feature of a prison escape, but on Oct. 19, a Hays State prisoner walked out the front door, got into a waiting car and was whisked off into the south Georgia countryside. How? The prisoner took the ID card of a fellow inmate who was scheduled to be released, peeled back the laminated surface, inserted his own photo in place of the legitimate one and passed himself off as the parolee.

In this instance, officials were already aware of deficiencies in their system and were in the process of upgrading the photo ID equipment and procedures. At the time of the escape, they had completed installation at 17 state prisons, not including, however, Hays State.

The new system, says Alan Adams, director of operations support for Georgia state prisons, "produces a digital image that is embedded into the hard plastic ID card and precludes the ability to cut a picture out or change a picture or scratch anything off or add to it."

The card also features the name, race, sex, identifying number and other data on the prisoner. In addition, a magnetic stripe on the back is used for account debiting for items not automatically provided.

The ID system, provided by Syscon Justice Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, also keeps track of inmates by bed, by cell, by range and by building.


Audits of security procedures are conducted routinely at Georgia state prisons, but after the escapes, two additional audits, one internal, one external, were done.

"We sent a team directly back to Hays to do a security audit to see if there were glitches in the system that needed to be tightened up," notes Adams. They found that they needed more rigid enforcement of the policy that already exists on key, tool and chemical control.

An earlier audit by KPMG Peat Marwick found that, despite the escapes, Georgia runs a secure system. Only one of the three escapees remains at large.

Functions of perimeter security

According to Georgia state prisons security specialist Larry Latimer, the four functions of perimeter security are:

* Detect someone attempting to escape.

* Assess the situation, because every system has its false alarms. "We have a camera system that sees every zone."

* Delay the escape. "We have concrete-grade beams under the fence in case they try to do a dig out."

* Respond. "We keep a manned roving patrol on the perimeter that gives us a 35-second response time."

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