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How Correctional Telecom Systems Are Shaping the Future of Digital Intelligence

As intelligence-gathering processes in corrections evolve, so do the workarounds opportunistic inmates come up with to coordinate illicit dealings.

This has become one of the most pressing issues for correctional facilities today. Some are ill-prepared to tackle the alarming inflow of contraband cellphones and intercept actionable communication to the outside.

What has ensued is a game of digital chess and a lot of confusion.

Unfortunately, the solution to contraband phones isn’t as simple as throwing manpower at the problem. Reallocation of time and resources is a largely infeasible ask, given that many facilities suffer from personnel shortages as it is.

Those in leadership roles appear to be at a loss as to how to slow the flood of incoming phones.

According to recent national data, facilities everywhere are rife with prohibited devices. South Carolina has the biggest problem on its hands, with Georgia and Alabama not far behind. The Palmetto State found that as many as one in three inmates were in possession of a smuggled phone.

Last year, lawmakers along with prison officials there sought to address the issue at the federal level. That combined effort led to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implementing a system aimed at pinpointing “where contraband phones may be in use and request[ing] that wireless carriers have them deactivated.”  

Officials in South Carolina and the larger corrections community think that while necessary, the FCC’s action is merely a half-measure. They advocate for “signal jamming”—a stiffer strategy that blocks cellphone reception.    

Jamming, however, gives rise to a host of concerns, not the least of which is the interruption of staff communication. Security Magazine explains, “Because mobile reception is blocked entirely, jamming blocks all phones and SIM cards within the jammer’s reach, including those of prison staff.” Though far from a definitive solution, jamming remains front and center in the discussion.

Increasingly, though, corrections investigators are embracing a different kind of digital solution: inmate communications systems.

Many facilities are now equipped with inmate communications systems or digital kiosks. It’s hard to argue with the benefits they offer: Inmates can maintain positive social connections remotely while facilities earn revenue from their communication.

Corrections leaders say they’re also critical to investigative efforts.

And it’s easy to understand why.

An inmate motivated to control illegal activities beyond prison walls will take advantage of whatever resources are at their disposal. Give them a kiosk or tablet, and they will use it.   

Take it from Sean Stewart.

Sean served as Corrections Captain for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Tucson, Arizona until his retirement in 2021. Decades of investigative experience taught him how incarcerated career criminals operate and how to conduct investigations by triage.

He’s long been a proponent of kiosks and tablets as a means of communication for inmates. Not only does he view these devices as behavioral management tools, but as a key implement for extracting data that becomes intelligence.

Using sophisticated data analytics, he developed techniques to identify where investigative resources should be directed. From there, he followed the digital footprint individuals involved in crime groups left, gaining insight into their often elaborate deception.

Being proactive in surveilling inmate communications—something he wishes more corrections investigators would do—enabled Sean to concentrate on leads worth pursuing.  

“If you tap into communication,” Sean says, “you’ll know everything that’s happening in your facility.”

He also stresses that patience is the greatest virtue an investigator can have.

Inmate communications systems come with security features that assign individual PINs for ID verification purposes. One of the most common tactics inmates involved with organized crime employ to circumvent that is PIN sharing.

This form of deception allows multiple bad actors, including the boss, to speak to the same contact (or anyone else using that number) on the outside. If PIN sharing goes undetected, crime networks can continue unabated, moving drugs or orchestrating violence.

Of course, the ultimate goal for these outfits is to protect the inmate who’s highest in the pecking order.

That’s why, once evidence of PIN sharing surfaces, Sean says investigators should resist the temptation to quickly clamp down. If you ask him, enforcing discipline for these infractions is a misuse of the intelligence.

With enough patience and diligence, a trained detective will eventually get to the “shot caller.”   

“You have to always be one step ahead. And you never know—the person [you’re tracking] could be a victim, strongarmed by a career criminal,” he says.

Sean states that investigators who leverage digital intelligence properly will let their inmate communications system aid their investigation from beginning to end.

To keep up with evolving investigative needs, providers are starting to introduce new data-gathering tools like Voice ID, which verifies that the correct inmate’s voice is present in a voice or video conversation.

It’s true that digital intelligence won’t stamp out the rampant contraband cellphone problem overnight.

Still, it’s sure to help investigators identify the pipeline sooner—a possible solution corrections professionals really ought to consider.

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The Many Voices of Redemption: Albert Reed

With 2021 now in the rearview mirror, resolutions made in the lead-up to the new year are now in full swing. For some, the new year is a symbolic reset. For others, it’s a chance to strengthen a skill or tackle a new goal.

For Albert Reed, change had nothing to do with a New Year’s resolution.

His motivation for self-improvement boiled down to one word: survival.

“I knew that if I remained in the state that I was in mentally and spiritually,” Albert remembers, “I would not be able to survive.”   

He’s coming up on the three-year anniversary of his release from federal prison. Traveling back in time, he details his journey and relentless pursuit of redemption…

The year was 1994.  

Having already endured more at 24 than any person ever should, Albert found himself facing drug possession and trafficking charges. Rather than plea-bargaining for a 30-year sentence, he decided to go to trial, where he ultimately lost.

That same year saw the enactment of the 1994 crime bill—a problematic piece of legislation that included a federal three-strikes provision. Per the law’s sentencing guidelines, a “third strike” carried a mandatory life sentence.

Though the provision was presented as a crackdown on habitual violent crime, it wasn’t quite as straightforward in practice. Any serious offense was deemed a strike, lumping violent offenses with nonviolent drug-related offenses.

The results were particularly devastating to marginalized communities. Fast forward to the present, and people of color make up over half of our nation’s prison population. The stark reality is that the excessively punitive effects of that policy are still felt today.

Rewind again.

The year was 1994, and Albert Reed had just received his third strike—the last of three drug-related convictions.

He was ordered to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  

Coping with this new normal wouldn’t be easy. And yet, despite the heavy-handed sentence, Albert remained confident that his case would eventually be revisited.

He knew it wasn’t a matter of if but when, noting, “I had to be prepared when the time came for my release.”

Albert wasted no time turning his attention to the facility’s law library. There, he absorbed as much information as possible, knowing it was, in his words, “the only way out.”  

But Albert was no stranger to higher learning. He had earned his GED and studied at Denmark Technical College in Denmark, South Carolina before his incarceration. 

As he quenched his thirst for legal knowledge, Albert began branching out into other areas of study as well. With the help of his family, who sent him books and magazines, he developed an understanding of business and finance.

Learning about entrepreneurship prompted him to begin mapping out his future post-incarceration. “[Education] sparked my mind and assisted in formalizing plans to own my own business upon release,” he says.

But he didn’t stop there.

After being relocated to different facilities with varying security levels, the scarcity of educational opportunities really struck Albert.

From this, he could draw parallels to life on the outside. He was painfully aware of the disparities in education communities like his suffer. Those disparities lead to self-perpetuating problems and, in his words, “extreme” damage” within inner-city communities—something Albert still knows all too well.

Behind bars, that was out of his control.

What he could control, however, was access to education from the inside. So, the aspiring entrepreneur and multidisciplinary student became the teacher.  

As he sagely puts it, “With knowledge comes power and responsibility.”

One day at a time, he continued down the path to redemption, helping others help themselves through education.

The years went by, but he was never one to lose focus or faith. He eventually found himself at the U.S. Penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana.

Finally, in May 2019, Albert received the news he had waited more than 24 years for: He was going home.

As one of a few thousand inmates granted release by the First Step Act, Albert could start the next chapter outside of a correctional facility. This exciting new chapter has included connecting more deeply with family and realizing his entrepreneurial dream.

Establishing his consulting firm, Albert Reed and Associates, has given Albert a fresh sense of purpose. His firm specializes in helping those once system-involved find avenues for employment—a fitting continuation of his story.

“We have helped to uplift quite a few people in finding their own form of redemption by clarifying one’s vision, ideas, hopes and dreams,” he says.   

But Albert acknowledges there’s a lot of work to be done.

He puts it this way: “If more of us formerly incarcerated members of society would create their own businesses, I believe it would go a long way in changing the perceptions held about those of us coming out of prison.”

However, stigmas tied to prior incarceration cause many to set low expectations for themselves, leading to maladjustment. For a stigmatized person, it’s difficult enough to find gainful employment; the odds of them starting a business are even slimmer.

Albert Reed and Associates looks to change that, breaking the mold in the public policy space. According to Albert, collateral consequences, by design, prevent the formerly incarcerated from becoming business owners.

The evidence backs up his claim.

A survey conducted by the Centre for Entrepreneurs found that, out of 95 participants currently serving time, 79% hoped to start their own business following release. Of 158 previously incarcerated people, 71% expressed interest in being business owners.

Yet, general skepticism and unfavorable social conditions make business ownership a challenging prospect for anyone who has done time.

As we look to the future, key questions must be addressed: Will we satisfy this appetite for entrepreneurship? Or will we turn our backs on people in search of redemption? 

For his part, Albert plans to do what he’s always done: educate and serve. Through his efforts, he hopes to pave the way for others with a troubled past to begin anew.

“What I hope resonates [from my story],” he says, “is the ability to act and move in a positive direction, the ability to search out and find true freedom, joy and happiness in life.”

All great redemption stories have a common thread: They empower others to write their own redemption story.

Albert Reed’s story is a testament to that.  

For more inspiring content, check out the first installment in our Many Faces of Redemption series!

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The Many Voices of Redemption: Gerald Tarboro

Stories of redemption are all around us.

The context varies, but the inspirational quality of these real-life stories is universal.

Behind every redemption story is a person who wrestled with adversity and succeeded against unlikely odds. Determined to make their mark on the world, they had a positive impact on others’ lives, righting wrongs in the process.

Stories of people making the most of a second chance are worth celebrating. In a way, they strengthen the fabric of society.

The same is true for the formerly incarcerated.

We know that the majority of inmates will eventually be released. This, in theory, clears a path for them to find redemption—something the public overwhelmingly approves of.

A public opinion survey in the Federal Probation Journal backs up that claim. Researchers found that almost 80 percent of respondents “totally agreed” it’s possible for offenders to lead a law-abiding life.

Equally interesting, over half of the participants thought an offender’s slate should be wiped clean after doing their time. This study, like many others, is indicative of the public’s resounding support for former inmates getting a real shot at redemption.

Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t always square with the goal.

Certain built-in societal restrictions set former inmates up for failure as soon as they step back into society. These restrictions, known as collateral consequences, permanently freeze previously incarcerated individuals out of public involvement—for example, voting. Former inmates are also beset by barriers to adequate housing, professional licensing and a living wage.

“Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions”, a book published by the American Bar Association, argues that very point. According to the authors, a combination of collateral consequences adds up to an increase in “recidivism and undermine meaningful reentry of [formerly incarcerated people] for a lifetime.”

In case this sounds like an overstatement, consider this: Males who have spent time behind bars earn 40% less than those who have not. By age 48, that amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost income.

Consider another fact: The average retirement age for Americans is 62. That doesn’t leave former inmates with much time to find financial stability, much less find some sense of redemption.

If that troubling truth gives you pause, it should.

Frankly, redemption is difficult to achieve for recently released individuals as it is. They’re commonly ostracized and face a great deal of growing pains associated with reintegrating into society. However, many pursue redemption when the stigma of being a once-incarcerated person is lifted.

Meet Gerald Tarboro. His story is proof positive of that.

In 2008, he was staring a lengthy prison sentence—15 years, to be exact—in the face. His sentence, stemming from drug trafficking and gun charges, was the result of a downward, though lucrative, trajectory.

Describing the addictive nature of his lifestyle, he remarks, “You can’t shut it off. I had seven cellphones, and I couldn’t shut them off.”

Gerald was at a crossroads: He could continue feeding his addiction or steer his life in a new, positive direction.

Fortunately for him and many others in his position, he chose the latter.

From the moment he arrived at the U.S. penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia, Gerald was single-minded in his pursuit of changing lives for the better. But by no means would it be a walk in the park. As one of the larger U.S. federal prisons by population size, USP Hazelton is rife with danger. In fact, it’s considered one of the nation’s most violent facilities.

That wasn’t going to stop Gerald. He was, in his words, “laser-focused on being part of the solution, rather than the problem.” He began thinking of ways he could leave a positive imprint. It didn’t take long for him to identify a need.

Two years before his sentence, Gerald had earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology. Academic support was sorely needed in USP Hazelton, so he took up tutoring through the facility’s education department.

He had found his calling.

Teaching from sunup past sundown, Gerald discovered that his love for the craft compensated for his dislike of math. And as his class sizes grew, so did his will to help his fellow inmates ultimately earn their GED.

Despite being moved from facility to facility, his commitment to teaching never wavered. Gerald eventually found himself at FCI Cumberland in Cumberland, Maryland.

That’s where he met Dawan Maynard.

Among the many students Gerald had the pleasure of teaching, that name stands out in his mind. Dawan, currently seven years into a 25-year sentence, had yet to earn his GED. So, when he heard about Gerald’s success with students, Dawan came to Gerald, eager to learn.

He became one of Gerald’s star pupils. Before long, Dawan had earned his GED and was tutoring alongside the man who had tutored him. In my conversation with Gerald, he described how much Dawan’s progress as a student and person meant to him.

Gerald’s quest for redemption paid off in March 2019. With four years of his sentence remaining, he was granted release by the passage of the First Step Act.

Since his release, Gerald has kept in regular contact with Dawan. He’s confident that Dawan’s sentence will be commuted in the not-too-distant future.

Gerald is now a welder and CDL driver, applying that same work ethic he had as a tutor. But his tutoring days are far from over. When his schedule allows for it, he plans to continue reaching people through education.

He hopes his youthful missteps serve as a cautionary tale for others. He explains it this way: “I want to use my story to tell others following a similar path of crime that there are really only two options: jail and death.”

Standing at the crossroads in 2008, Gerald Tarboro began following the path to redemption instead.

He never looked back.

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What it Means to be an Active Listener in Corrections

Spend a little time in a corporate setting, and you’ll probably come away knowing a thing or two about being an active listener. That’s because it’s become a bit of a buzzword in workplace training curriculum.

But in a correctional environment, active listening is more than some overused, trendy word.

On the contrary, it’s fundamental to working directly with the inmate population. Corrections officers are regularly—sometimes, daily—placed in stressful, high-pressure situations, and it’s at these times that active listening is most vital.

No universal definition of active listening exists. However, it’s generally defined by four key ingredients: being aware of your body language, suspending judgement, listening intently to understand and responding when it’s appropriate.

Here’s how each applies to the corrections space:

Be Aware of Your Body Language

Though it might sound counterintuitive, nonverbal communication is a critical component of active engagement. Your body language gives clues as to where your attention is directed when communicating with an inmate.

Make eye contact to demonstrate that you are engaged, have removed distractions and are interested in a solution. Really, body language sets the tone for the whole conversation. It could even be argued that mindful body language is a powerful de-escalation technique, putting out a fire before the match is even lit.

Giving credence to this sentiment, Dr. Jenna Curren states, “Your body language, facial expressions and gestures can contradict what you are verbally saying, so remember to match your non-verbal cues with your words.” 

In other words, you could be saying one thing verbally while your body language says another.

Suspend Judgement

The importance of suspending judgement in your interactions with inmates cannot be overstated. Take the time to learn about the inmates in your charge. Doing so empowers you to develop empathy—an extremely powerful soft skill.

Passing judgement when communicating with an inmate, whether silently or out loud, works against your ability to be an active listener. Not to mention that it risks dehumanizing, belittling or angering the inmate on the receiving end.

Now, suspending judgment doesn’t mean you’re legitimizing certain behavior or tacitly agreeing with the inmate. The Center for Creative Leadership puts it best: “Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold any criticisms, and avoid interruptions like arguing or selling their point right away.”

Unfortunately, inmates—both former and current—are often written off. Many come from rough-and-tumble backgrounds and difficult circumstances.

Listening with an open mind could make all the difference in future interactions, contributing to a safer correctional environment.

Listen Intently to Understand

There’s a difference between hearing and listening; the former is passive and one of the five senses while the latter is an active, learned ability. Active listening involves drilling down as the speaker is talking to understand the meaning behind the words.

As you interact with the inmate population, pay close attention to whether you’re listening or simply hearing. Ask follow-up questions and express curiosity about what is being said.

This creates mutual empowerment: The inmate feels empowered because they feel heard and their concerns are taken seriously. You, as the officer, feel empowered because you’re learning about individual inmates and the population you supervise.

Asked if active listening has a noticeable effect on inmate attitudes and behaviors in his facility, Sergeant David Ruiz says, “Definitely.”

Sergeant Ruiz serves as the administrator of the Ferry County Jail in Republic, Washington. “Active listening helps build a sense of rapport between officer and inmate,” he adds.   

Developing rapport can be as simple as, in Sergeant Ruiz’s words, “doing our hourly walks and stopping to talk to inmates.” On those walks, his staff makes a point of asking inmates how court or a visit went or talking to them about their day.

Then, they listen.

And Sergeant Ruiz will tell you from firsthand experience that inmates appreciate having someone ready and willing to listen.

Respond When it’s Appropriate

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a problem solver in a correctional capacity.

However, to be an active listener is to know when to put your problem-solving cap on and when not to. Here’s what I mean: Sometimes, inmates simply want to express what they’re feeling.

Perhaps they’re having a tough time or suffering from depression. Rather than cutting the speaker off or coming up with an answer right away, listen to what’s on their mind and only respond when the time is right.

This is an often forgotten part of active listening not just in corrections but across the board.

But “the key to active listening,” Tonya Echols of Thrive Coaching Solutions points out, “is to stop talking and stop thinking about talking.”

We’re making a difference in the lives of corrections professionals every day. Find out how here!

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Gratitude is the Best Medicine

With Thanksgiving only a day away, gratitude is sure to be on the minds of many. As I reflect on the importance of the holiday, I’ve become painfully aware of the comforts and luxuries I fail to appreciate the other 364 days a year.

Unfortunately, this is something we’re all guilty of to some degree. We live in a fast-paced, consumer society, often far removed from the troubles of the less fortunate.

Amid the holiday cheer, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder that gratitude should be practiced year-round—not simply on the fourth Thursday of every November.

Gratitude gives us perspective; it opens our eyes to all the helping hands we’ve received along the way. More than that, it’s a stabilizing force in our lives when we’re engulfed by frustration, isolation and despondency.

Perhaps nowhere are those feelings more pervasive than in our nation’s jails and prisons.

Confined and cut off from loved ones, it’s not difficult to understand why inmates struggle emotionally and mentally this time of year. But even for those spending this Thanksgiving on the inside, showing gratitude can boost mental and emotional wellness.

Take it from Keri Blakinger. A former-inmate-turned-journalist, she thinks back fondly to one particular Thanksgiving she spent in incarceration.

That day, the officer assigned to her unit wanted everyone to experience the closest possible thing to a traditional Thanksgiving meal. He made sure it happened.

With his permission, the women pooled their commissary items and prepared an enviable feast. In her personal narrative for The Marshall Project, she writes, “It was only one day, and then everything went back to how it was. But this is how change happens, one day at a time.”

For inmates, the incremental change Blakinger refers to is what it takes for—pardon the cliché—an attitude of gratitude to blossom. Such moments can act as a catalyst for practicing gratitude now and in the future.

Now, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and voilà, you have gratitude! Rather, it’s about making the effort to practice it on a frequent basis.

A growing body of research suggests that one of the best ways to do that is by putting your blessings on paper. Consider a study published in Greater Good Magazine.

Three hundred participants were divided into three groups. One group wrote about negative experiences they’d had, another wrote gratitude letters and the third wrote nothing at all.

Interestingly, the group that wrote gratitude letters to people in their lives self-reported discernible improvements in their emotional well-being. Researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong theorize that when “negative emotion words” were avoided, the toxic emotional weight the words carry was as well.

Another study worth highlighting examined the effects of “gratitude training” on juveniles in detention who exhibited depressive behaviors. Participants were asked to put expressions of gratitude in writing. In addition, researchers introduced gratitude-themed games for the participants to play in a group environment.

The results?

The participants had not only become more aware of what it meant to be grateful, but they scored lower on depression tests.

Having once worked in youth corrections myself, I saw displays of gratitude around Thanksgiving a few times. But instead of through letters, it was written on the juveniles’ faces.

As we drew closer to the big day, the kids would rush to the wall where meal menus were posted. Some of them would even read the Thanksgiving menu items aloud.

And at dinnertime on that fourth Thursday of November, they were offered seconds—a rare treat when we had few unfilled beds. Their faces beaming, they’d thank us enthusiastically.

Like the food, there was enough gratitude in the facility to go around.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll remember those kids and the gratitude they felt for something those of us on the outside take for granted.

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