AI video surveillance. Fitness trackers. Robotic arms. You could be forgiven for thinking this is the wishlist of a Silicon Valley startup. But you’d be wrong. Hong Kong is introducing these into four correctional facilities this year as part of a high-tech trial project.
China, like most of the world has a prison problem. There’s an overabundance of inmates, a lack of up to code facilities and poor rehabilitation and educational opportunities. This runs hand in hand with dangerously short staffed prisons, and a high preponderance of violence and drug use.
With the rollout of a number of technologies, they’re hoping this can be addressed. “To enhance the capabilities of law enforcement.. [we are] developing smart prisons, smart customs clearance and law enforcement, as well as using technology to enhance services of the Immigration Department,” Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam told the press in late 2018.
They’re starting their smart prison initiative off by rolling out a number of technologies in 2019. First up is a video surveillance system, which is linked to an A.I. video analytics platform.The system monitors is inmates are acting out — such as fighting or attempting suicide — officers will get an alert, and respond. As of 2015, Prison Studies reports there are 1,649 804 to 2,300,000 people behind bars in China, which makes it second in the world to the United States.
With so many inmates, maintaining the officer to inmates ratio (which is supposed to be one officer per thirteen inmates according to prison official Yang Mugao) is far higher, and serious incidents are not uncommon.
To monitor inmate health more closely, they’re also distributing what they’re calling “smart wristbands” to select inmates, with a focus on those incarcerated in prison hospital wards. The wristbands track pulse rate, location and feeds that information to their physical and health team. It also triggers an alarm if removed.
Then there’s a new $ 128,000 robotic arm, developed by a Hong Kong business that’s designed to detect for drugs. This addition is especially welcomed by the officers as it analyzes inmates fecal matter for drug contraband (drugs ingested so as to smuggle into the jail) — a task that used to be done manually. Inmates defecate into a provided receptacle which the robotic arm shoots water into, breaking down the matter to search for contraband. In total, they have a reported HK$ 3.5 million +128,000 total invested, funded by the Hong Kong Electrical and Mechanical Services Department.
This sounds incredibly high tech, but actually, these technologies have existed for many years. It’s their inclusion in a prison space that’s surprising, and even then, to some extent American prisons have been utilizing similar gadgets for years. At a recent jail expo, I discovered breathalyzers with facial recognition, RFID wristbands — which can be found in Pennsylvania correctional facilities, plus many others — to name a few. And of course, there’s virtual reality.
To be sure, all of these solutions come with concerns about violating people’s rights to privacy — and how their data will be used when they get released. Nonetheless, with many of these rights given up on admission, at least inside, this tech should theoretically protect more than it harms.