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HK Prisons Testing Smart Tech

Smart Technology for Hong Kong Prisons
Image Credits: AsiaOne, News Report

Hong Kong’s prison authority will test facial recognition technology, tracking wristbands and robot warders to create a “super security and surveillance system” and hopefully ease the load on hard-pressed staff, the prison chief recently stated.

As part of the “smart prison” initiative to modernise the city’s correctional facilities, a closed-circuit television system with a video analytics function to detect suspicious behaviour among inmates is being tested, as is a smart wristband.

The Commissioner of Correctional Services stated that the CCTV camera can be equipped with facial recognition technology, while the wristband, which has to be scanned before entering a room, can be used in the future to verify inmates’ identities and monitor their whereabouts at any given time.

For example, if wardens or guards want to know how many inmates are, and who exactly is, in the sewing factory, the three systems can work together. Presently, the prison staff perform manual headcounts, which do not verify inmates’ identities.

The upgraded systems are expected to be trialled by the middle of next year.

At Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre in Kowloon, a robot prison guard has begun patrolling the prison premises in a trial that began in September 2019.

Made in the Netherlands and costing around HK$600,000, it is equipped with a camera and microphone and moves around on six wheels.

Prisoners and officers can speak to each other through the robot’s remote conversation function, while its camera sends high-definition images instantaneously.

Human warders need to patrol the premises every 15 minutes, taking about nine minutes to finish one round. The robot takes six minutes.

The robot speed of the robot can be changed and set. The Commissioner believes that more frequent robot patrols would not only ease the burden on his officers but also keep a closer eye on inmates.

In the future, the robot could be equipped with an infrared camera to check on inmates in their cells.

It is hoped that the smart technology for Hong Kong prisons upgrades will help protect staff, raise their sense of professionalism and reduce the rate of turnover, which was worse than for the city’s other disciplinary forces.

Among the prison staff who quit, the wastage rate for junior staff hit 6.77 percent in the financial year of 2017-2018 – a five-year record high.

The use of technology would make a difference for younger officers especially.

Millennials use digital technology constantly, but older members of the staff can use none, not even their own mobile phones when working behind bars. They feel disconnected. There is a need to change, the Commissioner stated.

By the end of this year, the staff at a selected prison will receive a smart tablet so that they can make calls during their breaks.

The “smart prison” project was an initiative Chief Executive Carrie mentioned in her policy address in October 2018 and the department has been testing various devices in specific institutions since then.

The department was considering giving all inmates a tablet computer to use for e-learning, entertainment and to help prepare for life in a technology-saturated world.

A trial will be run at Stanley prison by early next year; prisoners will be able to use their tablets to write emails too.

Hong Kong is not the only region to trial smart technology in prisons; many countries have been developing smart prisons in recent years.

In Belgium, some prisons have installed a secure digital service enabling inmates to access television and films, e-learning and web pages about health care, jobs and legal matters.

Singapore’s Changi prison has been testing facial recognition technology to see whether an automated system can replace muster checks of prisoners that have to be done manually by officers.

South Korean prisons introduced robot guards with sensors to detect abnormal behaviour in 2012.

Hong Kong’s correctional institutions had an average daily population of 8,303 last year, down slightly from 8,529 in 2017.

The percentage of ex-prisoners returning to jail within two years of their release dropped from 39.9 percent in 2000 to 24.8 percent in 2016.

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