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A mounted camera surveys offenders along a walkway at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. More than 1,000 cameras have been installed at the maximum-security facility.
Photo by David Nunnelee
It’s all caught on camera.
First, the offender crouches to snatch a hand-fashioned weapon from beneath the door of a third row cell. He then walks down a flight of stairs and casually waits on the landing as another offender passes. Suddenly, the armed offender pulls out his weapon and strikes his target in the back. The wounded man runs off, tearing off his shirt as he flees. The non-fatal assault happens so fast and with so little commotion that even an officer positioned nearby doesn’t realize what’s happened. But the camera sees it clearly, and records everything it sees.
The camera is one of more than a thousand that have been installed at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. It is part of a comprehensive network of surveillance cameras being strategically placed throughout four TDCJ units to capture and record the activities of offenders, staff and visitors. Installation of the first system, which is coming online in stages, began at Polunksy this past summer. Similar systems, purchased with legislative appropriations made in 2009, are being installed at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, the Darrington Unit near Rosharon and the McConnell Unit in Beeville.
Cameras now cover virtually every aspect of the Polunsky Unit, to include blanket coverage of death row housing areas. Outside, cameras that pan, tilt and zoom in as far as a mile are mounted on two towers. Others are interspersed around the perimeter. Linked together, Senior Warden Tim Simmons said the interior and exterior cameras are a “game changer” for TDCJ as it battles to curtail the introduction and movement of contraband within units.
“To me, they’re something that enhances security,” Simmons said. “They’re another tool, and probably the most valuable tool that I have received in my career. They will help make the unit more secure and help us deal with contraband issues.”
More than 700 cameras are being installed at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont. Like Polunsky, cameras cover all housing areas, dining halls, gymnasiums and other places where offenders congregate, including the unit chapel. The indoor and outdoor visitation areas have multiple cameras mounted on walls and ceilings.
Stiles Senior Warden Richard Alford said the camera system, which can store up to 20 days of data, will not only assist in efforts to combat contraband, but also help ensure staff safety and monitor compliance with proper procedures.
Simmons and Alford say they are impressed with the user-friendly software that comes with the new surveillance system. From their offices or any other viewing station they can review what occurred anywhere on the unit at any point in time during the last 20 days. A “smart search“ feature allows them to select and search a specific area of the camera’s view to quickly determine if there’s been any offender or staff movement through the area over a period of time.
“The software is where the agency really hit a home run,” Simmons said. “It’s one thing to have all the data. It’s another thing to be able to go back and access it. This software is very easy to use.”
Polunksy and Stiles unit administrators stress that the comprehensive surveillance systems do not replace correctional officers.
“You can never replace a real set of eyes and a real voice in managing offenders,” Stiles Assistant Warden Darren Wallace said. “The system is just an enhancement. It just gives us an extra ability to monitor what’s happening and to go back and review things that have happened.”
“A camera can help you investigate something that is happening right this instant or it can help you investigate something that happened previously, but the camera doesn’t stop anything from happening,” Simmons added. “It doesn’t stop intent, but it does help us prevent, identify and verify things.”