On body cameras in prison

Neil Beales
Chief Custodial Officer, Department of Corrections

Leigh Marsh
Manager Operations Support, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:
Neil Beales is the Chief Custodial Officer (CCO) at the Department of Corrections. He joined the English & Welsh Prison Service 25 years ago, starting as an officer and then progressing up through the ranks to operational manager and deputy governor. He moved to New Zealand in 2009 where he took up the role of prison manager of Auckland Prison, a position he held until November 2012 at which time he accepted the role of CCO.

Leigh Marsh is the Manager Operations Support at the Department of Corrections. He joined Corrections in 2005 as a corrections officer at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison and progressed through the ranks to principal corrections officer and area programmes manager before moving to the Department’s National Office in 2009. During the last 10 years Leigh has held roles in operational assurance, risk management and programme management. From 2013-15 Leigh led the Corrections Staff Safety Programme.

“An officer is obliged to issue a warning from the start that an encounter is being filmed, impacting the psyche of all involved by conveying a straightforward, pragmatic message: we are all being watched, videotaped and expected to follow the rules.” – Dr. Barak Ariel of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge in England.

Technology and prison

New and emerging technology presents a range of challenges and opportunities for corrections services worldwide. We collectively face challenges posed by technology such as cellular phones, data storage devices, handheld tablets and the increasing use of drones. We are acutely aware that the advance of technology means that we have to remain ever-vigilant as new and emerging technologies present risks we have never experienced before and may not be currently equipped to thwart. We do however recognise that technology has a real place in helping us manage incidents, communicate effectively, protect our prison borders and stay safe.

The use of camera technology in prisons

Camera technology has long been used in prisons to monitor activity and enhance our ability to manage, secure and control our environment. Traditionally this type of technology has been broadly limited to overt Closed Circuit Television (CCTV). In most prisons in New Zealand and abroad, CCTV is installed in abundance, normally monitored by staff from a central location (e.g. master control room) or a combination of master control rooms and guard houses.

CCTV is a powerful tool in assisting in the safe management and control of prisons and is invaluable in capturing evidence of wrongdoing or serious incidents in order for us to bring perpetrators to account. Some researchers have used deterrence theory to describe the psychology underpinning the effectiveness of cameras; individuals are likely to modify their behaviour if they believe they are being watched (Farrar, 2013). At the lowest level this can be seen in public self awareness. In public, by and large, people behave in a socially acceptable manner and experience a heightened need to co-operate with the rules (Dilulio, 2011), for example, singing or swearing in public, or choosing how we dress if we think we are, or will be, observed. From a criminology point of view, the introduction of a capable guardian, whether it is a physical or passive presence means tools such as CCTV* , can reduce the likelihood of a crime being committed.

Although awareness of cameras may modify an individual’s behaviour, the effectiveness of the camera as a deterrent can be impacted by normalisation. In 2009, Welsh and Farrington demonstrated that the effectiveness of high street CCTV to deter crime is significantly diminished due to the presence of multiple people and the environmental blending that occurs (around 16% effective) (Welsh & Farrington, 2009). This is compared to a CCTV camera, in a setting such as an underground car park, where there may only be the perpetrator and the camera present (this increases to 51% effective). Personalisation of the recording device through direct, targeted and overt application can significantly increase the deterrent factor in offending.

Whilst CCTV remains an extremely useful and necessary tool, there are some limitations. CCTV generally captures only video, not audio, thereby potentially reducing its effectiveness. With just video being recorded, it is often difficult for prison staff to fully understand what has taken place, and who and what else may have been involved or contributed to an incident.

In a prison environment, CCTV is, for obvious reasons, placed out of reach and not always in the immediate line of sight. The normalisation effect discussed earlier means that over time the deterrence factor may be diminished as prisoners either choose to ignore that the cameras are there, or forget that they are there altogether.

Enhancing staff safety with on body cameras

In November 2012 the Department embarked upon a programme to improve and address issues affecting staff safety. Following a series of regional workshops, large scale consultation and engagement with key stakeholders, a draft plan was developed that sought to address the key issues and introduce new initiatives and innovation that would improve safety for staff on the frontline.

From the outset of the staff safety programme the chief executive appointed an Expert Advisory Panel to investigate and analyse staff safety, offer advice on potential solutions and endorse the draft plan. One of the issues considered by the Expert Advisory Panel was how to reduce confrontational interactions between two parties escalating into verbal and physical assaults in prison. The custodial environment means that the factors that can contribute to escalating incidents are exacerbated and heightened. Research demonstrated that an officer is most likely to be involved in an assaultive incident when in a high security environment, during or immediately after an escalating verbal interaction. In their initial report, the Panel indicated that the use of overt recording devices during incidents of escalating conflict could potentially significantly reduce the severity of such incidents, and the likelihood of the situation escalating further.

This idea was supported by an international trend of enforcement agencies introducing on body cameras (OBCs) for frontline staff. The most common users of OBCs internationally are enforcement agencies such as police, councils and security personnel. This includes multiple police departments across the USA and Canada, police districts and prisons in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong and some privately managed immigration centres in the UK. The experience of these agencies has been a 50-60% decrease in drawing of weapons, use of force, and complaints and allegations against staff within a 12 month period. Users of OBCs report a reduction in general aggressive behaviour and attitude when interacting with the public and offenders. In addition, OBCs present an opportunity to improve training and debriefing for staff, through the use of the recordings of real events.

A Cambridge University Study (Farrar, 2013) provides strong evidence of the positive effects of the use of OBCs. For example, it found the number of complaints filed against officers involved in the study dropped from 0.7 complaints per 1,000 contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts.

There were also New Zealand examples of the use of OBC, including Hamilton City Council successfully trialling and using them, and NZ Fisheries Officers holding trials with promising results.

The concept of introducing OBCs at Corrections was discussed and considered at regional workshops. The tools already at the disposal of custodial staff, such as tactical communication and tactical exit, assist custodial officers to identify escalating situations and take steps to manage or withdraw from them. The OBC idea was pursued to test the theory that the introduction of an OBC to the interaction, before it escalated, would decrease the likelihood of an assault occurring.

The pilot

The executive leadership of the Department agreed to a proposal to commence with a proof of concept trial and evaluate the impact of OBCs on the rate and severity of violence against staff over a six month period in 2014. The trial was established in two locations; a high security ‘pod’ style unit at Rimutaka Prison and a maximum security unit at Auckland Prison. The OBC was also to be used by the Auckland Prison drug detection dog handler. During the trial period approximately 30 staff and over 300 prisoners were exposed to the OBCs in the two pilot environments. Overall, there was 26 hours of recorded footage across 157 events, where the officer had activated their camera for safety or evidential reasons.

In recognition of the very high privacy risks associated with the collection, use, and storage of audio-visual filming, the Department developed a privacy impact assessment for the pilot programme. To ensure that its intended processes adequately mitigated any perceived privacy risks, the Department also consulted with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

These privacy risks were mitigated by ensuring there was appropriate pre-pilot awareness, limited access to the database and the Department ensured that the footage was used for the intended purposes described in the privacy impact assessment: assessment of the effectiveness of the tool in minimising harm, staff training and skill development, and for evidential purposes. (Some footage was also shown to the Law and Order Select Committee, and later released to the media, however, faces were pixelated to ensure personal privacy was not compromised).

Adequate processes were developed for responding to Privacy Act requests for access to, and correction of, personal information. No such requests were received during the pilot.

Trial findings

The trial sought to test the theory that equipping officers with the devices would improve their safety during normal duties. The trial was considered a success and feedback from custodial officers using the equipment, and prisoners exposed to it, indicated there was an increase in actual and perceived personal safety. The trial produced some evidence to suggest that when custodial officers are equipped with OBCs there are reductions in frequency and intensity of assaults, and fewer occasions when physical force is used to resolve incidents.

During the trial, there were no serious assaults and five non serious/non injury assaults. Although this figure is relatively low, there were nine recorded events where the prisoner either de-escalated in the presence of the camera or clearly stated they would have struck the officer if the camera was not there. In many of these cases the prisoner involved had previously assaulted staff or had demonstrated aggressive behaviour.

Analysis of all incidents over 12 months prior to the trial and during the six months of the trial itself showed an overall reduction of incidents of between 15 and 20 percent. The analysis also demonstrated a reduction in the severity of incidents, and this was supported by feedback from corrections officers using the OBCs as the following comments demonstrate:

  • "It creates a safer environment.”
  • “The on body cameras have worked very well. We have utilised them in many ways to enhance the work we do in and around the unit. The presence of these alone has helped draw a positive outcome to most incidents that may have before escalated further.”
  • “I think they are a positive for staff safety. Prisoners mostly de-escalate once cameras have been activated. Prisoners aside, we have had other peripheral benefits with them like recording evidence/crime scenes etc. Wouldn’t like to see them go to be honest.”
  • “Prisoners think twice about acting in an aggressive manner around staff whether it be to staff or another prisoner, also it has been said by prisoners that it can reassure them too. Since the cameras came into our unit I have not had a single negative comment from prisoners. If we remain professional at our job we have nothing to worry about. I have heard some staff saying that they will be used against us but these comments in my view would make me question as to why they would think this, if they are doing their job in a professional manner they have nothing to worry about.”


Analysis of the trial results identified the following high level findings:

  • The frequency and intensity of assault events is reduced and the likelihood of physical force being required to resolve incidents is reduced
  • The presence of the cameras has a calming effect on the wider unit
  • Staff feel safer and more confident when equipped with an on body camera
  • A feeling of ownership of the camera has a positive effect on uptake by officers
  • Camera footage has supported internal misconducts and external prosecutions
  • The cameras have provided officer training and development opportunities
  • The cameras have provided prisoner coaching opportunities where footage has been used to challenge prisoner behaviour
  • The cameras’ effectiveness to modify behaviour is dependent on how they are applied
  • The cameras keep officers professionally safe (preventing false accusations and complaints)
  • Costs associated with injuries sustained by staff when managing prisoners are reduced.

Whilst they do not replace positive interactions and pro-social modelling between staff and prisoners, OBCs are a tool that supports that approach.

The findings of the trial were accepted by the Corrections Executive Leadership Team and a decision made to proceed to a wider roll-out of OBCs in our high risk areas. The Department is now engaged in a process to implement the most appropriate solution.

*CCTV does not physically prevent the crime, but the perception of being caught reduces the likelihood of it being committed.

Dilulio, John J. (2011) Deterrence Theory. Downloaded from URL http://marisluste.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/deterrence-theory.pdf

Farrar, T. (2013). Self-awareness to being watched and socially desirable behaviour: A field experiment on the effect of body worn cameras on Police use of force, Cambridge University. England.

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2009). Public Area CCTV and Crime Prevention: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Justice Quarterly, 26(4), 716-745.