published Friday, June 4th, 2010

New system better tracks inmates in jail

The jail officer waves his electronic scanner over a 3-inch red tag mounted near the cell door. In about one second, the device chirps and an inmate's name pops up on the scanner's screen.

That motion and a couple of quick pecks on the screen will tell Hamilton County Jail staff where to find each of the building's 505 inmates at a moment's notice.

"It's easy," said Deputy Joe Rodriguez. "It's like you're scanning groceries."

With between 100 and 150 inmates moving in and out of the jail each day, knowing the exact location of each individual is crucial, officials said. When inmates are moved -- say to the infirmary or cafeteria -- officers enter that information into the scanner. When the red tags outside the cells are scanned, that location information pops up onscreen.

Three of the jail's six floors have red radio frequency identification tags attached to the walls near each cell and in larger rooms. As jail officers make their rounds, they'll scan the tags with the devices.

Installation on the remaining floors is under way.

The $2,200 device automatically logs in the time of the scan and gives the officer a choice of options for quickly entering information.

If the officer is doing a security check -- basically looking in on an area to make sure everything's OK -- the device tracks that. The device records when jailers look in on inmates, which jailers are required to do at least every 30 minutes, and also if the inmate is in a location other than their cell.

The officer can enter if the inmate is lying down, standing, has eaten or declined a meal, or if the inmate is unruly.

  • photo
    Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Lt. Gene Coppinger, the Hamilton County Jail security supervisor, uses a new scanning device to do cell checks in the booking area Wednesday. The jail acquired the new system two weeks ago and plans on eliminating paper logs within 90-days.

"This doesn't take the place of the officer doing his job," said Lt. Gene Coppinger, jail security operations supervisor. The scanner actually "requires a more in-depth study of who's in what cell."

Once finished with rounds, the officer will synchronize the device with laptops on each floor, and a supervisor can immediately log in to see what rounds have been completed and where the inmates are at any given moment.

Before this system, jailers had to make rounds and remember anything to note on the sheet or logbook when they returned to their station.

The $48,000 system uses radio frequency identification technology similar to the tracking systems in products shipped in massive cargo containers around the world.

The system cost was included in the 2009 bid process for an updated jail phone system, said Sheriff Jim Hammond.

For the last two weeks, jailers have tested out the system while still keeping written records in sheets and logbooks, Lt. Coppinger said. Within 90 days, the staff will be totally electronic, he said.

Jail staff store 11 paper logbooks a month, which fill filing cabinets, creating a jailer's worst nightmare -- fire hazards.

Not to mention the cumbersome research to track down inmates' locations or cell mates when subpoenaed for trials, Lt. Coppinger said.

Sheriff Hammond said the paperless log system is one of a number of electronic changes to help the department better gather data and manage time.

"It'll be the difference between using a quill and ink to the modern-day computer," the sheriff said.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Inmates learning to be better parents

Article: Video visitation system could improve jail operations, officials say

Article: Commissioners question purchase

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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