Suicide is a major problem in US prisons, accounting for 35% of deaths in local jails and 5.5% of deaths in state-run facilities in 2011, according to the US Department of Justice. The news site Ozy.com reported recently on an experimental GE monitor that uses Doppler radar to track movement in a given space -- an isolation cell, in this case. It can detect breathing patterns and even pulse rate and send alerts if they spike or fall out of the normal range.
New Scientist carried a story about this technology a few weeks ago, saying it tests at 86% accuracy. GE plans to put it through several more rounds of testing before deploying it in correctional facilities.
It turns out that biosensors and 3D cameras are already doing the work of human security guards in South Korean prisons and even in UK office settings, at least at the prototype stage. Mashable profiles the BOB robotic security guard in this video.
In both of these cases, the robot's 3D imaging creates a clear understanding of where objects and people are, how fast they're moving, and whether anything is happening outside normal parameters. Human guards have to intervene once they receive an alert, but the automated devices seem ready to handle routine patrols.
A South Korean official interviewed by Reuters said the goal of robot guards is "to decrease the workload of correctional officers." This is similar to the reasoning behind GE's cell monitor. Ordinarily, prisoners considered at high risk for suicide are held in isolation and checked every 15 minutes by human personnel -- a fairly effective but expensive process.
Social workers and other mental health professionals who work with the prison population don't see these developments as positive. I asked Abigail Strubel, a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master's degree in forensic psychology, about this story. Her take: "There's an overreliance on solitary confinement, which increases the risk of suicide dramatically. So, instead of reducing the number of people in solitary, they're making it harder for them to commit suicide once they're there."
Instead of relying on sensors, Strubel said, corrections facilities should invest in more guards, vocational training, and other rehabilitative programs. "Eyes on walls aren't going to lower reincarceration rates."
I think any technology that lowers suicide rates can't be a bad thing, per se, but I question the efficacy of robots in anything but a low-risk setting at this point. What do you think, members? Is the GE device a great application of sensor technology or another cost-saving measure that will marginalize prisoners even further? Share your thoughts below.
— Michael Steinhart, , Executive Editor, AllAnalytics.com