Imaging Tech Tracks Mix-Ups in Middlesex

Putting a person who legally should be behind bars back on the streets is a correctional officer's worst nightmare-the ultimate mistake. To avoid errors such as this and others when shifting inmates from one location to another, the Middlesex County, Mass., Sheriff's Office is installing a sophisticated tracking system that uses digital fingerprint and photo imaging technology.

The system enables the Sheriff's Office to track and positively identify people with a long criminal history who may have altered their physical appearance. "Just because we don't have a file on someone doesn't mean he's not a bad guy," said Alex Leone, information technology director for the Middlesex Sheriff's Office.

Along with reliable booking, the office must manage an overcrowded prison population housed in two facilities in East Cambridge and Billerica. An ordinary day requires officers to see inmates through many routines, from administering medicine to distributing supplies. Mix-ups might mean the wrong inmate gets an expensive van ride to the wrong facility, or worse-released. "We don't want to be releasing inmates on the wrong charges," Leone said.

With help from Unisys Information Services Group, Blue Bell, Pa., Middlesex is in the process of a $1.4 million upgrade to its nearly decade-old, DOS-based tracking system. The new system-called Positive Identification&Tracking (Positrac)-promises to reduce errors in tracking the movement of inmates and detainees through the system and pave the way for open interconnection with other state and federal law enforcement systems.

Middlesex's Requirements

"We've had a DOS-based system in place since 1988 that I'm sure a lot of agencies would be happy to have," Leone said. "But we felt we needed a more reliable way to positively identify detainees and inmates as they came back into the system. We needed photo imaging and fingerprint technology so that if someone comes in and gives us an alias, we have the capability to bring up his record using images and fingerprints."

Middlesex also wanted to use the system to begin fulfilling the state's criminal history reporting requirements for other Massachusetts law enforcement agencies and for the FBI's National Crime Information Center 2000 program, which is scheduled to be in full swing by the fall of 1999. "Right now, we have a dial-up link [with other state facilities], but we really wanted to enhance that," Leone said.

Middlesex was also not seeking slick technology for its own sake. It was important to the office that the tracking system be a user-friendly system that corrections officers could easily use. And like many police departments across the country, Middlesex was trying to do this on a shoestring budget.

Hardware

The Positrac system uses Gateway 2000 Inc. 120 MHz Pentium machines with 16M of memory. All but 12 of the 110 PCs are standard; those 12 have been "turboed-up" with video-grabber cards to best manipulate photos and prints. The PCs are tied to a Unisys server running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT and to an NEC fingerprint server. A T-1 connection is tied into SynOptics Communications Inc. hubs that move data traffic between nine buildings in East Cambridge and Billerica.

Imaging Systems

Two different types of images are fed into the Positrac system: fingerprints and mugshot photos. Fingerprints are taken using a Digital Biometric Inc. scanner at a 500-line resolution, which is an FBI standard. The color photos, shot with a Hitachi 24-bit digital camera, are taken at 320 by 240 pixels, compressed to 7K files in the JPEG format and stored on the NEC server.

The minimal storage necessary allows the office to store multiple images of a person, including shots of tattoos and previous mugshots. "Because the storage requirement is so small, we don't have to choose which photos we keep," said Mike Lyzun, a senior consultant with The MCL Group, a local company that developed the earlier DOS-based version of the system. "We can hold onto them now in our photo library."

Currently, the system is equipped to do thumbprints only. A five-fingerprint system is on the horizon, but states generally do not have the software for the bigger datasets required.

Software

The Positrac system runs customized inmate management software developed by Unisys. "Unisys is really not in the fingerprinting business," said Unisys correction manager Peter Jenny. "But this is a shell or a positive identification kernel that can easily integrate imaging technology." The company enlisted the help of Middlesex officials and The MCL Group.

The prints and photos are taken, stored with other existing records and then matched against people in the system. "The system will be used by officers that are taking inmates to court. They will say to a clerk, `Here are the guys on the van,' and although we had that with the DOS-based system, now they will have photos of the detainees. You can't get too much more positive than that since all of the photos will be recent," The MCL Group's Lyzun said.

The software displays images together with relevant text, such as the date an inmate was arrested and the charges. The system is transparent to users in each facility, and access to the database is controlled via a security system geared to an officer's clearance.

Before Middlesex decided to go with the Positrac solution, officials had to consider the many different user groups that will eventually want access to the system. "We tried to make the system as open as possible for linking to other areas within the state and to the FBI," Leone said.

Funding the Project

Despite all its apparent benefits, the price of the Positrac system-about $1.4 million-was a big issue for a small government agency. "But we felt that in the long run it would help us by reducing man-hours," Leone said. "We also really needed to do it, given our population and crowding issues."

The county worked with Unisys to devise an affordable plan for adopting the system. "Unisys was on a state blanket contract for these types of services," Leone said. "We had meetings here to describe to them what we wanted to do. We quickly found they would be able to get us the products and system we wanted."

Leone advises other agencies to stay away from initiating procurements and instead to look for alternatives that already exist, such as schedule contracts. He compared his agency's relationship with Unisys to a "broker" arrangement, which helped reduce costs and red tape associated with procuring equipment and services.

"Unisys was able to provide financing," Leone said. "They spread it out over six fiscal years, which helped with our budget. It eased the burden, so now we feel like we are getting a great bang for our buck."

To help manage the project financing, Middlesex also tapped Unisys Leasing Corp., a separate company and a unit of LeaseTech, Boulder, Colo., which specializes in vendor leasing and financing services. "We act as a type of financing entity that ensures a vendor gets funded according to its schedule," said Mark Stankhe, vice president of marketing for Unisys Leasing.

Unisys Leasing examines all the funding options and limitations of a particular local, state or federal government agency. "With local governments, you are not dealing with one entity," Stankhe said. "In this marketplace, every city, county and state has different rules. Middlesex County operates differently than the state of Ohio. You can't adopt one [funding] model and say this will work everywhere."

Jennifer Jones is a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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