Too many prisons are terrible places. Inmates stab and rape one another, mostly with impunity, to the point where gang membership becomes a survival strategy. Gang leaders maintain the capacity to order assaults both inside and outside the institution. Contraband markets flourish. Misbehavior by corrections officers – both brutality and corruption – takes place behind wall of silence and the shield of impunity.

Part of the reason is that the prisoners greatly outnumber the guards, who in turn greatly outnumber their supervisors. The higher someone gets in the correctional hierarchy, the less contact that person has with the realities of the cellblock. No doubt some wardens are content to be complicit in their subordinates’ misconduct – if not out of sympathy (almost all of them started out as line correctional officers), then to maintain labor peace – but surely most would prefer to run more humane and lawful institutions. Most prisons now have surveillance cameras; as a result, those who want to commit assaults or deal contraband simply identify locations where the cameras do not point.

The revolution in information and communications technology, plus the fad for high-tech model airplanes, offers an important piece of the solution to this apparently intractable problem.

For a few hundred dollars, you can buy a toy chopper (controlled from your laptop or smartphone) equipped with one or two HDTV cameras and a transmitter. The devices are a foot or so across, weigh around a pound, make about as much noise as the cooling fan on a computer, and fly for an hour on a battery charge.

Now imagine a prison with fifty or so of those devices flying pre-programmed but more-or-less random patterns, their cameras transmitting to a bank of monitors watched by two or three officers (better yet, monitors in a remote facility watched by two or three members of some other union) and recorded. Suddenly no place is safe from surveillance. If the watchers have direct communication with the shift commander, it will be possible to intervene immediately; even if not – even if there are no live watchers at all on some shifts – the evidence will be there, and available to the warden. No wall of silence, no impunity for inmates or staff. Fewer assaults, a much smaller contraband market, confiscation of illicit cell phones use by gang “shot-callers,” and much less need for punitive “administrative segregation” (aka “The Hole”) or the even-more-horrible (criminal in my view) “SuperMax.” Cost: trivial.

Can you say “Panopticon“? I was sure you could.

No, I don’t expect it to happen. But if it doesn’t, the onus of the continued crimes and illicit transactions is squarely on the corrections commissioner. Nothing is stopping it but lack of imagination and determination.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.