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Experts Identify Priority Needs for Addressing Correctional Agency Security Threats

Understaffing, illicit drugs, contraband cellphones, and gangs were among top-of-mind issues for experts brought together to identify pervasive security problems facing corrections institutions — and new ways to address them.
Date Published
April 6, 2020

A select working group of 17 correctional officials and security experts from across the country, convened by the National Institute of Justice, ranked 13 security-threat categories in order of perceived importance. More than 90% of the experts assigned “high importance” to the problem of insufficient staffing — more than any other threat category. But the experts articulated the largest number of discrete priority needs in the category of contraband — led by needs related to illicit drugs, weapons, and cellphones. Gangs and violence together comprised another top-level problem for institutions, with gangs seen as posing a fundamental security threat by manipulating or otherwise disrupting operations, according to the working group report developed by RAND Corporation.

RAND and University of Denver researchers organized and managed the correctional security workshop, made up of institution administrators, federal agency representatives, and security professionals, as part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative. Key goals of the program were to identify priority needs to guide NIJ’s research agenda and to advance the national discourse on correctional security issues.

Modern security challenges in corrections environments reflect larger social trends. Inside the walls, they are manifested in many ways, including —

  • Overdose deaths and other substance issues from opioids.
  • Prison or jail gangs.
  • An influx of contraband cellphones to sustain incarcerated persons’ criminal activities.
  • Drones delivering contraband over prison walls.
  • Technology access needed to prepare incarcerated persons for reentry.
  • Cyberattack vulnerability of increasingly internet-dependent institutional systems, such as heating, air conditioning, and communications systems.

To identify priority problems, as well as associated needs or specific requirements to address those needs, researchers first asked the workshop participants to brainstorm areas of need, and then to rank 40 identified needs in terms of priority, each time taking into account both a particular need’s importance, standing alone, and the probability of success of meeting that need. (Thus, a very important need would fall into a lower priority tier if a policy solution did not appear feasible.) The needs were then grouped into five separate themes as well as three tiers, with Tier 1 reflecting highest assigned priority, and Tier 3 the lowest priority.

All identified Tier 1 problems and associated needs, by theme, are in Tables 1-3 at the end of this article.

Significant Understaffing Is a Threat to Security

In many states, correctional agencies are experiencing chronic and severe understaffing. Officer vacancy rates in some states top 45%, according to sources cited in the RAND report. Nationwide, annual turnover in prisons and jails averages 20%, with some states hitting 53% annual turnover. Ultimately, the report said, “inadequate staffing impedes an institution’s ability to deter, prevent, and respond to security threats.”

For state correctional agencies, a lack of the resources necessary for maintaining adequate staffing levels is compounded by a lack of national staffing standards needed for agencies to make a compelling case to legislatures for additional resources. The working group thus called for research to develop models pointing to optimal staffing levels.

A point of emphasis for the working group, in the staffing area, is the critical dynamic between correctional supervisors and officers, which informs institutional culture and impacts security. Supervisors are often prevented from performing adequately because they are forced to fill in for absent officers and because they are spread too thin as they supervise officers, undermining their effectiveness. The working group identified a need for better training of supervisors to engage staff, as well as a need for research into the short- and long-term effects of supervisor shortages.

Contraband in Many Forms Is Saturating Correctional Environments

Contraband in the form of drugs, cell phones, and weapons are common in prisons and jails, the working group reported.

New Drugs, More Drugs Imperil Correctional Institutions

The epidemic of drugs behind bars is worsening with the introduction of substances that are more lethal and harder to detect. The working group report noted that more than half of those incarcerated in state prisons and two-thirds of those sentenced and in jail meet the criteria for drug dependence. Incarcerated persons spend significant time searching for drugs; drugs hinder rehabilitation; overdose deaths are on the rise; and some drugs cause dangerous reactions affecting institutional and staff security. The working group identified synthetic cannabinoids as well as opioids, including fentanyl, as the most problematic drugs currently in prisons and jails. Exposure to fentanyl is of special concern because small amounts can be lethal when inhaled or absorbed. Staff members as well as incarcerated persons are at risk of exposure.

The working group called for a number of actions and research initiatives to detect drugs in the mail, protect mail-handling staff, digitize correspondence, and identify specific drugs, among other innovations.

Cell Phones Facilitate Misconduct and Crimes

Many correctional administrators described contraband cell phones as their most pressing security concern, the report said. A threat to both institutional security and public safety, cell phones are used to plan crimes, escapes, and attacks on staff and to operate criminal enterprises. Use of contraband cell phones has become so widespread, the report noted, that the head of the Federal Communications Commission stated, “In the hands of an inmate, a cell phone is a weapon.”

One obstacle to addressing the cell phone infestation is a lack of hard facts on its dimensions — national statistics are not gathered by any official source, the working group report said. Conservatively, tens of thousands of contraband phones are collected every year, but that could represent a mere fraction of cell phones in circulation.

Electronic jamming can block cell communications, but federal regulations bar jamming by state and local agencies, and in general the practice is viewed as imprecise and indiscriminate. A more precise technology, known a “micro-jamming,” has shown promise for blocking wireless signals inside a cell while permitting transmissions as little as 20 feet outside the cell, the report said. But the cost is currently prohibitive. The working group urged that state and local agencies should be able to test jamming technology solutions.

Identified needs include development of technology to mitigate cell phone use and support of research to quantify the cell phone problem in correctional environments.

Many Contraband Weapons Are Built to Evade Detection

Contraband weapons can either be handmade by incarcerated persons or smuggled into institutions. Often made of nonferrous material — material without appreciable amounts of iron — to avoid detection, weapons held by incarcerated persons pose a direct threat to other incarcerated persons and staff. The working group called for cost-effective new technology to detect contraband weapons and block their influx.

Violent Gangs Present an Unrelenting Challenge

Overall, an estimated 13% of the incarcerated population belongs to “security threat groups” — the study’s term for gangs and other criminal organizations. By far the majority are members of gangs working both in the street and in institutions, the report said. Gang activity is linked to increased violence, including homicides, and gangs often control black markets and seek to manipulate correctional staff.

To better combat and neutralize the security threat groups, the working group called for development of best practices beyond existing concentration, dispersion, and isolation approaches. It also called for assessing the potential of existing systems to identify problematic communication patterns. Large volumes of recorded or written communications by incarcerated individuals go unanalyzed, the working group report noted.

Institutions Vulnerable to Growing Cyber Threats

As correctional institutions’ commitment to information technology (IT) systems expands, their commitment to cybersecurity has not kept up, the expert group found. IT is at the core of critical correctional operations — e.g., security systems, HVAC, communications, health and safety platforms — that in many instances are provided or maintained, or both, by outside vendors. Agencies also often maintain large and vulnerable data sets. Security breaches are increasingly common. To address cybersecurity risks, the NIJ-sponsored working group called for development of best practices to address vulnerabilities and guidance for monitoring threats posed by incarcerated persons accessing Wi-Fi operating networks in close proximity to institutions.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2013-MU-CX-K003, awarded to the RAND Corporation (RAND). This article is based on the grantee final report, “Countering Threats to Correctional Institution Security: Identifying Innovation Needs to Address Current and Emerging Concerns” (2019), by Joe Russo, Dulani Woods, John S. Shaffer, and Brian A. Jackson. The workshop informing the grantee report and this article was convened by RAND and the University of Denver (DU) as part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, a project of RAND, the Police Executive Research Forum, RTI, and DU.

Table 1. Tier 1 Human Resources Needs
Problem or Opportunity Associated Need

Recruiting — Some agencies struggle to recruit staff and attract the current generation of job seekers.

Conduct research into potential impacts on recruiting from marketing and branding strategies (e.g., media, social media).

Supervision — Supervisory staff often do not have the time to perform key functions (e.g., mentoring, positive reinforcement, staff recognition).

Conduct research into the short- and long-term effects of supervisor shortages.

Vulnerability — Some factors may make certain staff more vulnerable to security threat groups (e.g., gangs) or other negative influences than others, making them more susceptible to compromise.

Develop a risk assessment (i.e., suitability test) instrument to inform hiring and management decisions.

Uncertainty on policy effectiveness — The effectiveness of policies to deter staff misconduct and criminal activity is unknown.

Conduct research to identify the most effective deterrents to undesired staff behavior (e.g., fines, public punishment).

Table 2. Tier 1 Contraband Needs Related to Drugs, Cell Phones, and Weapons
Problem or Opportunity Associated Need

Mail access to drugs — Drugs arriving by mail are a consistent problem.

Develop technology that can identify whether there is more than just paper and ink in a piece of correspondence.


Conduct research on best practices for personal protective equipment for staff handling mail.


Identify the costs and benefits of digitization systems that can handle the range of incarcerated individual's correspondence  (which might include electronic delivery of legal documents).


Develop technology that can identify specific drugs infused in incarcerated individual correspondence.

Drug detection — Drugs transported by visitors and staff are hard to detect.

Conduct research to identify best practices with regard to searching staff and visitors.


Conduct research on the risks and benefits of using body scanners on staff and visitors.

Criminal operations with cell phones Cell phones are being used to coordinate criminal activity.

Assemble a research and testing group in which state and local entities can test current technologies for mitigating the devices.


Identify the costs, risks, and benefits of existing technologies and policies for detecting, locating, and blocking contraband devices (including layered defense).

Unknown quantity of cell phones An unknown number of contraband cell phones are being used to coordinate criminal activity.

Conduct research to quantify the size of the problem (partner with the Association of State Correctional Administrators or other appropriate organization).

Table 3. Tier 1 Needs Related to Information Technology
Problem or Opportunity Associated Need

Perception of Vulnerability — Correctional institutions are increasingly integrating automation and IT systems for daily management of cells, release date calculation, etc. There is some evidence that this increased use is introducing new vulnerabilities.

Develop best practices specifically tailored to the unique vulnerabilities of (and unique data managed by) correctional agencies.

Internet Access — Wireless internet access systems in the vicinity of institutions often can be used for communication, and they can be hard to detect.

Develop guidance for monitoring the threat.

“Internet of Things” Exposure Newer devices that are being installed to manage infrastructure (HVAC, steam plants, water systems, etc.) are often designed with connectivity that introduces vulnerabilities (i.e., the internet of things).

Conduct research to determine best practices for how to manage these devices.

Date Published: April 6, 2020