Jailhouse Video: Plugging the Gaps With HD

Avigilon cams see every corner in high-rise facility.
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At the Oklahoma County Detention Center, officials needed to make some improvements. Among them: a video surveillance system with 138 Avigilon HD cameras, leaving no corner uncovered.
The Oklahoma County Detention Center in Oklahoma City is a challenging facility to control.

by James Careless

Holding 2,700 inmates in 28 pods, the OCDC is a 14-story high-rise with 268,000 square feet of floor space to manage. Yet until recently, OCDC staff only had 16 analog pan/tilt/zoom cameras to keep an eye on inmate common areas (day rooms).

"This was totally inadequate," said Capt. David Baisden of the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office. "By the time we could swing our cameras around to see what was going on, the incident had already ended."

A U.S. Department of Justice report in 2008 criticized some of the jail's conditions and operation, leading to several improvements.

The big change in surveillance came on Jan. 1, 2010, when the OCDC activated a 138 HD digital camera surveillance system. Made by Avigilon of Vancouver, Canada, the system allows two guards to see what is happening in all day rooms at all times, with no blind spots where troublemakers can hide out. The result: "We now have our eyes on the inmates constantly, except for looking directly inside their cells," said Baisden. "The improvement in reduced levels of violence, investigation time and false claims against our guards has been significant."


The OCDC is structured into seven levels of pods, each of them made up of cells facing into an inmate day room (including eating/recreational tables) and a glass-enclosed guard station. Some of the pods house two stories of cells, some just one.

In the pre-Avigilon days, the OCDC's analog cameras and VCRs were supposed to capture and record whatever was happening among the inmates. However, these units had to be manually steered around—and the inmates were able to see where the cameras were pointing at all times. "In this circumstance, one of the inmates could stand near the camera, and signal the others when it was pointed elsewhere," Baisden said. "This would allow them to stage a quick attack on another inmate. By the time the guards heard the noise and tracked the camera around to capture it, the attack would be over."

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Sheriff John Whetsel at the helm of the 138-camera system. The lack of adequate video surveillance made investigating such attacks and other incidents timeconsuming and often inconclusive. As well, it was easy for inmates to fabricate charges of excessive force against guards, simply because there was often no documentary proof of what had actually happened.


Baisden was given the responsibility of upgrading the OCDC's video surveillance system.

"I decided that the best answer was to get the creme de la crème, the very best, most complete video surveillance system possible for the money," he said. "Only by using the best equipment would we stand the best chance of addressing our surveillance issues."

With the help of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, lots of research, and many product demonstrations, Baisden choose Avigilon HD cameras and Avigilon Control Center network video management software (NVMS) with HD Stream Management. With the Avigilon solution, OCDC officers would be able to see every inch of the day rooms at all times, and know that whatever happened would be captured in the system's hard disk storage array. Add quick access for locating and transferring surveillance video files to prosecutors, and the case for Avigilon was solid.


OCDC's enhanced video surveillance system includes Avigilon 1-Megapixel and 5-megapixel HD cameras. Since each common area is rectangular, two 5-MP cameras are mounted to capture long views of the space (one camera at each end of the day room). Two 1-MP cameras are then mounted on the remaining two walls—one on each—so that the guards have criss-crossing views of the room.

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An Avigilon HD camera Together, the Avigilon system provides a view of each day room from four 90-degree angles. As a result, video surveillance is complete, with no blind spots. Additional HD cameras have been mounted in the lower floor receiving, processing and holding areas. Avigilon also supplied a number of analog video encoders that allow the existing 16 analog camera feeds to be included in the prison's digital surveillance system.

The video from each floor is sent by fiber optic cable to a dedicated Dell server. Collectively, there are seven servers running Avigilon NVMS software; each of which sends its matrix of video signals by Cat5 wire to a central facility. The feeds are then displayed in 4x4 grids across 12 Samsung 40-inch HDTV displays.

"We have two people on staff watching the displays, with the cameras split between them," Baisden said. "They each have a Dell work station as well, plus telephone and radio links to our staff. When something happens, they can alert the right people fast."

Finally, every video feed is recorded to the OCDC's Pivot3 video server, which boasts an impressive 252 TB of disk storage, enough to store surveillance video for two-and-a-half months, with a view toward expanding that lifespan to 90 days.


$10 million annually: That's how much Baisden estimates the Avigilon system is saving the county, by using video surveillance instead of adding security officers to provide each pod with an extra set of eyes.

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Complete coverage has eliminated the ability to stage the "off-camera attacks" that used to happen here. And when inmates do break the law, it takes very little time to find out what happened by reviewing the video, and then sending the relevant video files to the District Attorney's office. Video surveillance also motivates guards to act better.

"In fact, we have seen a complete attitude change across the facility," Baisden said. "But where video really makes a difference is in protecting our staff from hundreds of thousands of dollars in frivolous, malicious lawsuits."

A case in point: While awaiting processing, a handcuffed prisoner viciously head-butted the officer watching him, then tried to claim damages for the injuries he suffered while making the attack. Video captured by a nearby Avigilon camera made clear what had happened. The suit was dismissed and the prisoner who made the attack disciplined.

In another instance, prison staff were called to the cell of a female inmate who was ill. They took her in a wheelchair to get medical attention, but she died before being treated. "In the past, someone could have been accused of negligence," Baisden said. "But the video record is clear: One moment the woman is sitting alert in her wheelchair, with the officer close by but not touching her at all. The next second, her head lolls off to one side and she's gone. That's what actually happened, and we have the video to prove it."