Heather Redding
York College of Pennsylvania
September, 2004

The Components of Prison Security

As prisons become more crowded and internal problems arise, it is important to keep control and stability inside and outside of the prison. Although there are many security measures that can be put into place, it is hard to say whether it is the physical design of the prison or the skilled officer that makes the difference in safety and security. Both play a major role in keeping things running smoothly inside and outside the perimeters. The reason for this research is to analyze how each part of security helps maintain cohesiveness and what can be done in those cases where there is chaos.

Physical Security

The physical structure of a prison is extremely important. The role is twofold: to keep society out and to keep inmates in. Therefore, high walls or fences and detection systems are essential when building a prison. According to the Department of Correctional Services, "the layout, design, and age and level of maintenance of prisons have a direct impact on the level of security" (Department of Correctional Services, 2003). The department describes physical security as "the prison building itself, the layout thereof, the design as well as fixed security systems attached to it such as close circuit television, security fences, alarm and detection systems, etc." (DCS, 2003). With that being understood, it is easy to understand why the physical design plays such a big role in the prison system. Every day more innovations are being introduced as a way to heighten security.

In 1999, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had about 120,000 inmates under their watch, increasing the need for more advanced technology. It introduced the prison system to AVIAN-Advanced Vehicle Interrogation and Notification System. This system

detects the presence of persons hidden in vehicles and notifies security guards of potential escapes. Using the data from seismic sensors that are placed on the vehicle, the AVIAN reads the shock wave generated by the beating heart, which couples to any surface or object with which the body is in contact. It collects the data and analyzes them using advanced signal processing algorithms to detect hidden persons in less than two minutes. (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1999)

Other valuable security measures are inmate classification, categorization, and allocation.

"Inmate classification and reclassification, coupled with proper institutional placement, are important security factors-perhaps as important as the security provided by bricks and mortar" (American Correctional Association, 1998). "Prisoners are classified according to different risks they pose to fellow prisoners, personnel, and the community" (DCS, 2003). There are different levels of categorization according to how much of a threat the offender is to society. Category A prisoners are very dangerous to society, the police, and the state. The escape of these prisoners would be detrimental to the welfare of the community. Category B prisoners do not need the highest security, but escape must be made difficult to achieve. Prisoners in Category C cannot be trusted in open conditions, but they do not have the ability or resources to make a determined escape attempt. Category D prisoners can be reasonably trusted to serve their sentence in open conditions (Price, 1999). Allocation refers to the placement of a prisoner in a certain institution, which can include the local jail, a state penitentiary, or a federal prison:

Prisoners may be allocated to any prison in England and Wales according to the offence, sentence, security category and individual circumstances of the prisoner. There is no right to be located close to home, but the prisoner can apply for transfer. The Ombudsman can intervene in an allocation decision if it can be shown to be unfair. (Liberty, 2002)

Internal Security

Although the physical design and inmate categorization are key elements in security, they are not complete without officer protection services. "It is important to emphasize that the physical features of an institution's perimeter, by themselves, are useless without staff properly trained to be alert to their responsibilities while operating a post" (ACA, 1998). Prison officials are responsible for the security measures that the physical design cannot control. Some duties include "access control, searching of prisoners and their belongings, and movement control both inside and outside prisons and during the transportation of prisoners" (DCS, 2003). As part of the American Jail Association's Code of Ethics, the correctional officer promises to "keep the institution secure so as to safeguard the community and the lives of the staff, inmates, and visitors on the premises" (American Jail Association, 1993).

The only sure way of providing top-notch security is through education and training. The ACA recommends that there be 120 hours of training after hire and another 80 hours before being placed on a shift (Vertuno, 1999). The initial training, though, is not enough education for a corrections officer. As the Code of Ethics states, an official promises to "take advantage of all education and training opportunities designed to assist in becoming a more competent officer" (AJA, 1993). The laws change every day and the officer must be quick and efficient when it comes to handling problem situations in the system.

Problems In Security

There are many problems that can occur within a prison system. Some include faulty detection systems and some result from inadequate training and education on the part of the officer. Also, some officers may be involved in scandals inside the prison. "All people-staff included-who move into and out of the institution must be considered possible avenues of contraband movement" (ACA, 1998). In Ohio, a state owned prison in Grafton is one of many that have security problems. There the local newspaper reported that, "prison guards flunked drug tests, were not subjected to required background checks, and cheated in weapons training. Prisoners also had access to pieces of metal, tools, and rocks on the prison construction site" (Johnson, 2000). Inmates in a San Antonio prison managed to steal 14 revolvers, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a rifle before they drove away in a prison van without being checked. The escape led to a Christmas Eve robbery and the death of an Irving police officer (Associated Press, 2001). Problems with security can have crucial, deadly impacts on society. One malfunctioning wire can cause a nationwide alert. A guard who is not paying attention may be responsible for putting the entire institution in jeopardy. Economics also plays a role in security. In order for there to be adequate programs there must first be an adequate amount of money-this can be seen with the prison-industrial complex. Schlosser (1998) describes the prison-industrial complex as not only a set of interest groups and institutions, but also a state of mind. "The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits"

(Schlosser, 1998). "Like the military/industrial complex, the prison industrial complex is an interweaving of private business and government interests. Its twofold purpose is profit and social control. Its public rationale is the fight against crime" (Goldberg & Evans, 1995).


As the prison population grows so does the need for heightened security. This requires extensive training and education by the correctional officer and flawless design in physical security. No one aspect is more important than the other, but each has its own duty and responsibility for protecting the institution, inmates, officers, and the community. The answer to the question of which is more significant in security-the internal or physical factor-is neither. Both play a key role and both use each other as backup support. A detection system is no good without someone there to react to it, just as an officer cannot identify certain problems without being alarmed by a detection system.


Heather Redding is originally from Hanover, Pennsylvania. She is a student at York College of PA, majoring in Criminal Justice and minoring in Criminalistics. Her email address is hredding@ycp.edu.


American Correctional Association (1998). Causes, Preventive Measures, and Methods of Controlling Riots and Disturbances in Correctional Institutes. Upper Marlboro, MD: Graphic Communications, Inc.

American Jail Association (1993). American Jail Association Code of Ethics. Retrieved January 28, 2003, from http://www.corrections.com/aja/resolutions/index.html.

Associated Press (2001). Prison escape probe to focus on lax security. Retrieved January 28, 2003, from http://www.clickonsa.com/ant/news/stories/news-20010108-085202.html.

Department of Correctional Services (2003). Safety and security. Retrieved February19, 2003, from http://www.dcs.gov.za/OffenderManagement/Safetyandsecurity.htm.

Federal Bureau of Prisons (1999). Introducing AVIAN. Retrieved February 5, 2003, from http://www.heartbeat-detector-avian.com.

Goldberg, E. & Evans, L. (1995). The prison industrial complex and the global economy. Retrieved April 22, 2003, from http://www.prisonactivist.org/crisis/evans-goldberg.html.

Johnson, A. (2000, July 28). Security at prison in doubt, union says. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved February 19, 2003, from http://www.dispatch.com/news/newsfea00/jul00/364974.html

Liberty (2002, August). Allocation. Retrieved April 22, 2003 from http://www.yourrights.org.uk

Price, D. (1999). Questions and answers about security categorization. Retrieved February 5, 2003, from http://www.postcardsfromprison.com/research/catsecfq.htm.

Schlosser, E. (1998). The prison-industrial complex. Retrieved April 4, 2003, from http://theatlantic.com/issues/98dec/prisons.htm

Vertuno. J. (1999). Prison official says guards receive more than recommended training. Texas News. Retrieved April 22, 2003 from http://www.texnews.com/1998/1999/texas/prison0130.html