A picture worth 200 guards: Jail installs HD video, violence drops 90 percent
The Oklahoma County Jail is a busy, aging facility. A 13-story building built in 1991 in downtown Oklahoma City, it books about 44,000 detainees a year and it has been troubled with inmate violence because of the difficulty of adequately supervising its 30 housing units, or "pods," that hold up to 100 inmates each.
In 2009 the jail was averaging about 300 altercations per month, some small, some serious, said Capt. David Baisden, of the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office. But the installation three years ago of a high-definition video system to monitor the pods and other areas of the jail has cut the number of incidents by 90 percent and streamlined investigations and prosecutions without hiring new personnel.
"It has changed our lives," said Baisden, who heads the jail's support services. "Our frivolous lawsuits have gone down."
Investigations that formerly took days or weeks now can be done in minutes and he estimates that the county has avoided $10 million a year in costs for hiring new detention officers. "It's saving Oklahoma County millions of dollars," Baisden said.
The most obvious parts of the new video system are the HD megapixel digital cameras that are replacing older analog devices. But it is the back end of the system that provides the real value, said Rick Ramsay, senior product manager at Avigilon, the company that supplies both the cameras and management software for Oklahoma County.
"The key is effectively managing high definition," Ramsay said. "The cameras are important, but managing the video gives you the return on investment."
Managing means effectively indexing, storing and recovering data streams that can amount to terabytes of data each day from digital and legacy analog cameras. This is done in Oklahoma County by Avigilon's Control Center software.
The move to the HD video system was in part a response to a Justice Department investigation of jail conditions that found, among other things, that the jail failed to provide reasonable security for prisoners. A 2008 report blamed overcrowding, an awkward physical layout and inadequate staffing for conditions that had resulted in at least six inmate deaths from 2005 through early 2007. Built to house 1,250 inmates, it held 2,543 in April 2007.
"Actual direct supervision of detainees at the jail is virtually nonexistent," DOJ found. "The administration has installed surveillance cameras within many areas of the Jail, including the housing units, to help address the lack of detention officers. However, blind spots exist within the housing units."
At that time, the jail was using analog cameras with pan-tilt-zoom ability in the housing pods, which consist of an open day area surrounded by two tiers of 25 cells each, holding up to 100 detainees. The cameras were inadequate for the job.
"It was never in the right place when an altercation broke out," Baisden said. Prisoners were able to track camera movements inside the smoked glass housings and avoid being captured on video. When something was captured by the cameras, finding the relevant scenes was time-consuming and often not very productive because of the quality of the images. "You could see that it wasn't a bear, but you couldn't tell who it was," Baisden said.
In October 2009 the county entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with DOJ that called for hiring a "sufficient number of qualified jailers" to put at least one officer in each pod at all times. DOJ acknowledged that this would take time and money, and agreed that in the meantime the county should take other steps, including increased video surveillance.
Fully staffing the jail without improved video would have required hiring 200 detention officers in addition to the 450 already on staff, at an annual cost of $10 million.
"Our pockets just aren't deep," Baisden said. The jail's $31 million annual appropriation from the county covers 10 months of salaries and six months of inmate health care. The rest of the $42 million budget comes from process-serving fees and contracts for housing inmates from the Oklahoma Corrections Department, the U.S. Marshals' Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sheriff John Whetsel told his staff, "We don't have a choice; we have to do this with technology," Baisden said.
It was decided to replace the video system, and after a needs assessment in the facility Avigilon was selected. The Control Center software will work with any digital camera, but Avigilon also makes its own line of HD cameras, which are being used by Oklahoma County, ranging in resolution from 1 to 29 megapixels. With an analog video encoder it also manages feeds from legacy cameras, a feature that the jail is using to manage video from the adjacent county building's security system as well as for some older cameras still in the jail. Video feeds not only can be time-stamped for searching but also searched for movement in particular areas of a frame, such as a door opening or someone coming into view.
High-definition megapixel surveillance has been a cost-effective, viable solution for about five years now, Ramsay said.
"The fundamental tasks are fairly simple," he said of HD monitoring. But performing them with the large data streams produced by HD cameras adds complexity. "It presents a lot of interesting technical challenges," Ramsay added, including managing the maximum number of camera feeds a server can handle and optimizing effective storage and recovery of video.
Oklahoma County spent $364,000 in 2009 on the initial acquisition of 138 cameras, seven servers, switches, fiber optic cabling and 252 terabytes of storage. The jail now has about 180 cameras, which are stationary and have intersecting fields of vision to cover 100 percent of each pod. There are between two and five cameras in each pod, mostly 2-megapixel cameras for short range views and 5-megapixel ones for longer range. There also are a few 16-megapixel cameras used for perimeter security outside the building.
The county bought the equipment from a local vendor but did the installation with in-house staff rather than an integrator to save money and to ensure that the jail would have the expertise it needed to manage and maintain the system with a minimum of outside support, Baisden said.
Installation began in November 2009 and was completed by the end of the year. On Jan. 1, 2010, the first altercation was caught on camera. In the first 30 days, 30 inmates were charged with violent crimes and the prosecutor was able to go to court with better video evidence.
"It didn't take long for word to get around, and the number of altercations dropped," Baisden said. There now are about 30 incidents a month rather than 300 in a population of about 2,900 detainees.
The primary limitation of the system today is storage. The current 252T capacity provides 45 to 60 days of storage. The county would like to up that to as much as two years, the limitation for filing tort claims in the state.
Storage could be stretched some by a technique called data aging, in which the frame count for older video is reduced, but Baisden is reluctant to do this. "We keep everything pretty much pristine," he said. "When you start dropping frames out, you are going to lose something."
Another alternative is to upgrade to cameras using more efficient H.264 compression. The jail's current HD cameras use the JPEG 2000 image compression standard. The H.264 standard for video compression provides high-quality video at lower bit rates by alternating between full-image reference frames, followed by a number of frames in which only changes within the field of view are recorded.
For stationary cameras such as those in the jail, Baisden estimates that a switch to H.264 could extend storage by 60 percent to 70 percent. That would not provide all of the additional capacity the county wants, but some H.264 cameras are being used in a parking garage and the juvenile detention center to evaluate whether an upgrade to a new format would be more cost effective than buying all of the additional storage needed.