Body Cameras in Prison, Good or Bad?

Will Adams
Will Adams

Will Adams is a well known prison expert based in California. He has testified in many civil and criminal trials about a variety of corrections topics. His company has handled cases in California, throughout the Southwest United States including New Mexico, Arizona, and in Hawaii.

A recent federal court order has forced the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, CA to place body cameras on it’s correctional officers. An un-named class-action case is ongoing involving disabled inmates and the prison with apparent allegations of routine abuse of disabled inmates by correctional officers. The judge not only ordered body cameras, but also complete video coverage of certain areas of the prison.

Shortly after the ruling came out, local and statewide news outlets such as the Times of San Diego and the Los Angeles Times reported the story. According to their articles, (which do not name the court case or provide a copy of the order) the prison has five months to create policies and get the surveillance system, with body cameras, in place.

Facebook and social media posts involving current and retired officers with experience at the R. J. Donovan Prison are mixed regarding the officers’ feelings about being forced to wear the body cameras.

THE BAD:

There is a stark difference between traditional policing in the community, and policing an inmate population in a prison. The most stark difference is the amount of contact that takes place between officers the those they police. Police officers are supposed to be a “visible presence” in the community, making contact with citizens when they are called, or when they believe a crime has been committed. Police interactions are short and consist mostly of the initial contact and possible followup interviews or courtroom testimony.

Police officers do not involve themselves in the daily living activities of citizens, ensure they eat, have clean clothes on, get to work on time, see the doctor and dentist, receive their mental health treatment, and their living areas are clean and sanitary. Correctional Officers are tasked to remain in constant contact with the inmates they are policing.

Correctional Officers, because they must be completely involved in the lives of inmates have to develop and maintain a high degree of familiarity with inmates. They need to know who the inmates are by name, where they belong, and when they are acting out of character. Correctional Officers, unlike police officers, cannot effectively perform their job functions without developing a relationship, albeit a detached one, with the inmates in their care. The wear of body cameras, in my opinion, might threaten the ability of officers to participate in the social norms required to develop helpful, working relationships with inmates. Socialization includes talking about friends, family, crimes, telling jokes, and helping others work through problems. I find it unlikely that inmates will risk engaging in such behaviors if they think they are on camera.

Body cameras require storage of the video they capture. The non-stop, eight to sixteen hour consistent contact with inmates would require correctional officers to keep the cameras on all the time. This would require a massive infrastructure to accommodate storage. Officers in prisons are approached constantly by inmates, not called to interact with them like police. Correctional Officers cannot know when they might be attacked, when they might use immediate force, or have time to turn on the camera, which leaves the only option constant recording.

Correctional officers deal with confidential informants and materials, and sometimes need to interact with families, medical providers and the like during work hours. The cameras might violate privacy protections for the officers and inmates.

Officers must escort inmates to medical appointments, and often are required to remain in the room during medical exams and procedures. The camera might violate the doctor/patient privacy needs, as well as, HIPPA.

Officers will not be able to discuss confidential matters, conduct investigations, or deal with confidential employment issues unless they are allowed to turn the cameras off; so the policies will be incredibly complex as to the protection of officers personal and professional privacy. Given the need for turning off the cameras, it is likely officers will forget to turn it back on. In such cases, protections must be in place.

Many officers worry that the camera footage will be used by supervisors and administrators to target them for retaliation or harassment. Officers believe that any slip of the tongue, inadvertent comment, or procedural mistake will be used for disciplinary action by administrators and supervisors who don’t like them. This is a valid concern. Nobody is perfect.

THE GOOD:

As apparently intended by the court, wearing body cameras will have a chilling effect on correctional officers who would be abusive toward inmates. There are bad officers, there are abusive officers, there are officers who delight in their own power and in lording over, threatening, and bullying inmates. This is, while disturbing and unfortunate, a fact. It is also a fact that these bad officers are a very small minority in the correctional community. Most good officers become frustrated with their lack of ability to stop fellow officers who abuse, because of fear of a “snitch” stigma, and fear that the bad officer has allies in the upper ranks. Body cameras and increased surveillance will do two things. First, hold questionable officers in check, and second, provide a means of proving correctional officer abuse in order to “weed out” bad officers.

Body cameras will be able to record incidents where officers make mistakes that can result in training opportunities. Officers learn best from their own mistakes, and second best from the mistakes of their partners. The increased surveillance and body cams can give training staff tools to identify training needs and adjust On-the-Job and Classroom training accordingly. On-site supervisors, if video is immediately available, can use it to verify use of force reports and tweak emergency response procedures after incidents to help officers see mistakes close to the time of the events and enhance officer safety in the future.

It has been my experience that inmates file false complaints against officers. There are generally Inmate/Parolee Grievance Forms (CDC-602), and Citizen’s Complaint on Peace Officers (Staff Complaints). Body and surveillance camera footage can be used to prove that officers were not violating procedures.

Body camera footage is also a great tool for showing the public and other law enforcement officers the difficulties inmates pose on a daily basis. Their uncooperative, defiant, and violent behaviors are imagined, but seldom seen by the public and courts. perhaps it is time that the reality of the job were better known to the public, police agencies, and the courts.

Time and again citizens have made complaints against police officers and claimed all kinds of abuse. Their claims are taken up and passed around social media and the news media as if true, until departments release the full footage. It would be a good thing for the CDCR to have the same opportunity to set the record straight.

The ability to defend against frivolous lawsuits could be enhanced by the wearing of body cameras. It is often the case that incident reports are poorly written, and reviewers fail to identify issues that need clarification. As a result, inmates see opportunities to file lawsuits that are based upon the “facts” as determined by poorly written reports alone. The addition of video could do much to enhance the defense of false allegations made in lawsuits.

The body cam footage could be used in the disciplinary process by hearing officers and senior hearing officers. The footage could be used to identify participants in riots, and other incidents, to make inmates more accountable for their actions, and the hearing process more fair.

Overall, I think the benefit of adding the cameras far outweighs the potential disadvantages. Clear and enforceable policies would have to be instituted. Officers would have to be well trained in the use and care of the cameras, and receive detailed policy instruction regarding the body cameras. While the court seems to have imposed what might seem a punishment to the R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility at first bluish, it may just be a great gift in disguise.

Good or Bad? Both. Like everything else in life, there are positives and negatives. It is my opinion that there are more positives than negatives, as long as, the CDCR builds privacy and employment protections into the policy to protect the officers required to wear the cameras.

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