New tech system to detect prison fights, multi-use wrist tags for inmates rolled out in Singapore
‘Avatar’ monitors whether a fight is about to break out so guards don’t just have to rely on tip-offs or real time surveillance footage
By Faris Mokhtar
Fights in Singapore’s prison cells are rare, but they do occur. Intervening early so that arguments do not escalate into brawls is the best move, and authorities there are testing a new surveillance system at Changi Prison to support their work in this area.
The system, called Avatar, uses video analytics that is backed by an algorithm to detect the “high intensity, erratic motions” of inmates, which could signal that trouble is brewing. When this happens, an alarm will sound, allowing prison officers to rush to the scene quickly before a fight starts.
Before this, officers detected fights by monitoring real-time footages from closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed in the cells, or from tip-offs by other inmates.
Avatar is now on trial at one prison cell, which houses inmates temporarily before they are moved to permanent cells. It is among the latest technology that is being tested in Changi Prison as part of the “prisons without guards” concept, first announced by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) in April last year.
To turn this concept into a reality, investing heavily in technology is key, given the manpower crunch that Singapore faces.
Superintendent (1A) Chan Kai Yuen, who oversees the roll-out of various technological initiatives at SPS, said of the move to automate the work processes: “We want to free up our officers from the more mundane and routine activities, so that they can have more time in higher order work such as the rehabilitation of our inmates.”
He also said that the initial outcomes of the various piloted systems have been positive. For instance, the Avatar managed to detect the aggressive behaviours of some inmates, with officers stepping in before the situations worsened.
Outcomes from the trials will help to improve the system, he added. The Avatar is still learning the behaviours of inmates, to properly distinguish between a fight and, say, when the inmates are merely exercising.
On Thursday, the media was given a tour of a women’s prison — one of 11 prison institutions within the Changi compound — to view some of technology that are on trial. The majority of them were introduced two to three months ago at some of these institutions.
Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary with the Home Affairs Ministry, who was present at the viewing, said that the concept adopted by SPS does not “literally mean there are no guards in our prisons”.
Apart from helping to free prison officers to take on other duties, technology is also used to encourage greater interaction between inmates and their families. For instance, inmates may use a digital tablet to send email to their families or “use online learning resources to embark on self-learning”, she said.
Another initiative being tested is a facial recognition technology that allows officers to account for prisoners in a cell, some of which would house two to three inmates. To do this, they just need to look at the camera at the cell intercom, located on the wall beside the cell gate.
The traditional way of accounting for inmates typically involve three prison officers doing muster checks three times a day. Each officer takes up to half an hour to conduct each check, but the new system will slash this to 10 minutes.
To capture and track the attendance of inmates when they go for work or for counselling as part of rehabilitation programmes within the prison grounds, a near-field communication chip — another piece of technology on trial — is embedded in inmates’ wrist tags.
This is a faster way to check the attendance of inmates than doing it by pen and paper and then transferring the information onto a Microsoft Excel sheet.
The chip also doubles up to automatically calculate the allowance of inmates placed on work programmes, and acts as a form of digital wallet. Inmates can scan their wrist tags against a smart dispenser system to buy food items such as biscuits and cakes from self-service vending machines. Once they are done, the system will automatically deduct the amount from their allowance.
This removes the need for officers to manually gather the inmates’ purchase orders, update their allowance accounts and distribute the food items.