Mar 29 2007

Unlocking the Network

Low-cost, easy-to-install wireless bridges allow campuswide access at Missouri's aging prisons.

Unlocking the Network
Low-cost, easy-to-install wireless bridges allow campuswide access at Missouri’s aging prisons.

Missouri hasn’t given up on moving to Wi-Fi for its Corrections Department, but cost and security are concerns, says IT Director Don Lloyd.

Every prison in Missouri is like a small town. Each has dozens of buildings that offer everything from religious and vocational support to health and housing services.

In the past few decades, the Missouri Department of Corrections has tripled in size. There are 21 prisons with 11,000 workers and 30,000 prisoners, and another 70,000 people on parole or probation. The department maintains everything you could want to know about offenders online: the buildings where they’re housed, the services they access and the workers who interact with them.

Unfortunately, technology needs weren’t factored into the design of the century-old prisons themselves. The technology boom bypassed many Missouri prisons; drilling through inches-thick walls of concrete and steel to lay wires just didn’t seem feasible. The result: About 1,000 green-screen dumb terminals are still used, and prison staff often can’t access the files gathered and managed electronically by the department. In some prisons, phones are still the only means of communication, Missouri CIO Dan Ross says.

1,000 - The number of green-screen dumb terminals still in use at Missouri prisons.

July 2010 - The self-imposed deadline set by Missouri CIO Dan Ross for having PCs and adequate networking in all the state’s prisons.

But that’s changing. Missouri is installing Cisco Systems wireless bridges to connect prison buildings to one another. The bridges bring computer access to the facilities without the high cost of running fiber. Because the bridges connect directly to one another, the state also doesn’t have to worry about security risks posed by multiple wireless access points, says Corrections Information Technology Director Don Lloyd.

“I’m pretty excited about this,” Ross says. “I think [facility-to-facility] wireless holds a lot of flexibility, and it can drive down costs.”

Because the prisons must check construction workers and their tools in and out every day and secure the construction perimeter, project costs can spiral out of control, Lloyd says. But it takes only a day or two to install a wireless bridge compared with the weeks or months needed to dig trenches and lay wire. That translates into big savings. Less construction also means fewer tools that could become potential weapons entering the prison, he says.

The wireless bridges will also mean the end of the line for the AS400 dumb terminals, allowing for the deployment of PCs running Microsoft Windows and providing Web access.

“Our executive staff has to manage Corrections more corporately than ever before,” says Dwayne Kempker, superintendent of Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Mo. “You can’t run a beast this big without intelligent information.”

Web access will help the department better interact with courts, social services, schools and career counselors to prepare prisoners for release. “We have to be plugged into the outside more than ever before,” Kempker says.

Wireless Bridging Advantages

  • Throughput several times faster than T1
  • No monthly leased line charges, especially with multiple buildings
  • Fast installation times — even faster if trenching is avoided
  • Unlicensed band — no licensing delays
  • Return on investment is typically realized within a year

Lock Down

A piece of mail, a phone call, a visit from a girlfriend — any communication with the outside world could pose a life-and-death security risk. Left unmonitored, prisoners could plan hits, arrange drug deals, plot escapes and more.

Although Web access can help prison officials do their jobs better, it is also another potential means of illicit communication for prisoners.

“The inmate population is evolving just like the rest of the population,” Ross says. “Security is certainly a concern, and the ability to intercept and manipulate information needs to be minimized.”

That was the primary reason Missouri opted for wireless bridges as opposed to Wi-Fi networks with access points, Lloyd says. “I don’t want the wrong people getting into the network.”

None of Corrections’ computers themselves will be wireless. Every building has Category 3 or 5 wiring, and each prison has a T1 line connecting it to the department’s wide area network.

The T1 connection typically serves one drop point within a prison, which means that most or many of a prison’s buildings cannot access the WAN. The bridges solve this problem by creating 10-megabit-per-second connections between buildings that then allow the systems within each building to gain access to the T1 line wirelessly. The bridges can also connect trailers used for training or transitional services, such as career counseling for prisoners getting ready for release.

Small antennas on top of the buildings support the bridges and must point directly at each other to work. Someone would have to be at roof height between two antennas to intercept the signal, says Doug Newman, information security officer for Missouri’s IT Services Division at the Department of Corrections.

As added precautions, the bridges use keys to access the networks, and the data they contain is encrypted. The extra security features came standard in the Cisco wireless bridges, and Newman says it only took about a day to install them once he read the configuration manual.

Corrections’ officials considered a full Wi-Fi network, but the necessary extra security features put the price tag over the top, Lloyd says. For instance, the IT team had considered setting up a grid system that would only permit certain PCs to access the Corrections network from specified grid locations. That way, a prisoner couldn’t steal a notebook computer, hide it in his cell and intercept a wireless signal to get online. But the cost was prohibitive, Lloyd says.

Missouri hasn’t given up on moving to Wi-Fi for its Corrections Department. “It just hasn’t been cost-effective yet,” Lloyd says.

Next door to Algoa is the Jefferson City Correctional Facility. When it opened in September 2003 after a massive modernization, its employees went from working at the oldest prison in the state — built in 1836 — to being on the staff of the newest.

“They went from rock walls and towers with very little technology to the 21st century in one day,” Kempker says.

Missouri Corrections has numerous examples of such technological extremes. As it rewires its aging prisons and adds wireless bridges to connect isolated buildings, many workers are using PCs for the first time.

Some employees are using Microsoft Word and Outlook, while their neighbors are stuck with the cryptic word processing and messaging applications of dumb terminals. The PC users can pull up offender records, complete with photos — unheard of in the green-screen world, says Lloyd.

But with so many green-screen dumb terminals still in use, Lloyd and Ross say they must develop new applications with limited functionality so they’re accessible to everyone. “We’re always building for the lowest common denominator,” Lloyd says.

The wireless bridges are helping change that. One of Ross’ primary missions since taking over as CIO in 2004 has been statewide IT consolidation. He’s currently soliciting bids for a next-generation statewide network.

New Tech

Leveraging resources has brought about efficiencies and cost savings. This, combined with a steadily growing state budget, has allowed Ross to introduce new technologies to the Department of Corrections, which he says has been neglected and underfunded for years. His plan is to update wiring, bring connectivity (wired and wireless) and introduce PCs to all of the state’s prisons by July 2010.

As Corrections gets its much-needed technology makeover, officials envision a wealth of potential applications in the not-too-distant future. Telemedicine and online access to courtrooms could reduce the need to transport prisoners, cutting costs and boosting security. Technology also has the potential to improve prison monitoring and tracking with tools such as biometrics scanning and integrated video, communications and security systems.

“I remember when we relied heavily on clipboards,” Kempker says. “We’ve waited 75 years [since Algoa opened its doors] for the 21st century.” lSTl

High-Tech Prison, High-Tech Precautions

At North Branch Correctional Institution in rural Maryland, radio monitors sense when an officer is in distress and report where he is in the building. Touch-screen security systems link 450 cameras throughout the grounds. Computerized systems secure the perimeter patrol.

Dubbed “High-Tech Prison” by the National Geographic Channel’s “MegaStructures” show, North Branch has applied modern design, tools and systems to remake the super-maximum-security environment. But one technology you won’t find at North Branch is wireless.

“Security is always our top concern,” says David Bezanson, assistant secretary for property services at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. With 4,800 convicted murderers serving time in Maryland, unfettered Internet access via Wi-Fi could be disastrous, he says. Wireless access could expose a closed, redundant hard-wired system to hackers and leave too many potential openings, Bezanson says.

Maryland does use wireless bar-code readers at its booking center in Baltimore to expedite processing. Each prisoner gets a bar-code bracelet, and as they move through the booking process, officers scan offenders’ bracelets. That’s small, contained use, but widespread wireless use in prisons is another story, Bezanson says.

“Wi-Fi technology is out there, and it’s growing all over the country, but in the prison environment I think it creates too many risks,” he says.

Secure Enough

Not all agree. South Carolina and Missouri use wireless bridges to connect some buildings on prison campuses. The individual prisons have central T1 lines, and where cost-effective, wireless bridges connect prison campus buildings to that central point.

“It’s just another way of building out your network to those outlying buildings,” says John Ward, IT director for the South Carolina Department of Corrections and president of the Corrections Technology Association.

South Carolina Corrections’ administrative buildings use Wi-Fi, and if the need arose, Ward says he would consider incorporating full Wi-Fi networks in prisons. Security wouldn’t be a “showstopper,” he says, because wireless security controls are advanced enough to keep networks safe.