Go back

Live-streaming bodycams; a necessity for Prison Officer Safety

November 10, 2023 — Insight

This is a challenging time to be a Prison Officer. The UK Ministry of Justice projects the long-term prison population to increase by more than 10,000 by March 2025,[1] while at the same time acknowledging significant staffing issues. 15% of prisons are expected to have fewer than 80% of the prison staff they need.[2]

Alongside this, a lack of funding for prison infrastructure means the premises themselves aren’t always designed to put the safety of staff first. HMP Low Newton, a Category A prison in Durham is the latest to be criticised by the independent ombudsman for CCTV blackspots that could result in violence[3].

Against this backdrop – and with a pressing need to recruit more officers – it’s no surprise that body-worn cameras are becoming standard-issue for prison guards. What is surprising is that the majority of those are dumb ‘record-only’ devices. It’s true that they provide greater objectivity and accountability for prisoner and inmate interactions. But, crucially, only after the fact.

Record-only cams are insufficient at reducing the risk to Prison Officers

Record-only bodycams do very little to protect the wearer in the heat of the moment. In fact, according to a study from the University of Cambridge of police officers equipped with bodycams, they may even put the wearer at additional risk. The research found that bodycams did reduce the number of complaints from the public as all participants were aware there would be an objective record of the encounter. However, it also increased the possibility of that officer being assaulted by 15%.[4] If a violent individual knows they’ve been caught on camera – and they can destroy the only copy of the footage by destroying the physical device – that puts the wearer at an unnecessary level of risk.

Following a two-year BBC investigation[5]  that has uncovered more than 150 case of camera misuse by police officers, consideration should also be given into who has control of when footage is being recorded and deleted. Used properIy, the technology can protect staff against malicious complaints and improve the quality of evidence collected. But if the devices are truly to act as an independent witness, and to restore trust In police and prison officers, then the wearer cannot be the sole decisionmaker. Responsibility for which footage is retained and deleted must sit with an accountable third-party.

Protect officers and evidence by live-streaming footage

This is where the true value of the capability of live streaming video over cellular becomes so apparent. All of a sudden, bodycams are elevated above a means for establishing liability. Instead, they become a crucial safety tool for real-time incident resolution, bring greater accountabiliy and enhanced employee safety. There’s no longer an incentive for either party to try and destroy the evidence if a live feed has already been securely transmitted and logged elsewhere.

With live video, teams can monitor situations from a central control room and receive a constant stream of live data that informs instant decision making and improves response times. Is the current situation getting worse or is it in hand? Is backup required? And are specific resources necessary to ensure the situation is brought back under control?

How can you guarantee live video over cellular?

So, why aren’t we already seeing the widespread deployment of live streaming over cellular? Not just for bodycams but also to address CCTV blackspots in prisons where CCTV coverage is deemed inadequate? Largely, it comes down to an over reliance on standard video codecs that were simply never designed to deliver consistent quality video and audio over cellular networks in real-time.

The majority of devices on the market today rely on H.264 or H.265. They’re ideal for situations where bandwidth and connectivity are plentiful. Yet neither is capable of offering reliability over cellular, causing choppiness and breakdown of video. The long and short of this is that Prison Officers require special technology that can cope with poor signal and varying bandwidths.

Naturally, this capability to live stream isn’t required or even desirable for the entirety of an Officer’s shift. But it needs to be triggerable at a moment’s notice. Whether that be at the press of a button or initiated by an action such as the removal of a baton from its holder. Remote team members can then see what they see, looking out for their wellbeing, ensuring procedures are followed and co-ordinating the response.

Luckily, it is possible to by-pass the constraints of cellular networks. EdgeVis is an AI-based video codec that was originally developed for military use but that is now available to the commercial markets through the likes of AT&T and Vodafone. It reduces bandwidth requirements and the associated costs by up to 90%, meaning cameras that would have required 1-2mbps can now reliably operate at as little as 300kbps. A very attractive financial proposition when compared to the cost of deploying more fixed infrastructure inside prisons.

Prison security is in the spotlight and there are no quick fixes to the challenges we now face. The reality of a rising prison population, outdated buildings, and the need to onboard new prison officers in high volumes will all take some time to resolve. However, leveraging live video over cellular can plug some of the immediate gaps and be of on-going benefit in the longer term. Live-streaming bodycams can change the face of prison security because it keeps prison officers informed and in control.

It’s true that the record-only cameras currently in wide circulation do aid with evidence collection, however, this does nothing for employee wellbeing and does not help them in the here and now. The devices currently in use are obsolete and should be upgraded at the first opportunity. For those with approaching tenders, there’s no time like the present.

By Kunal Shukla, SVP of Technology, Digital Barriers

[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1138135/Prison_Population_Projections_2022_to_2027.pdf

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-66431061

[3] https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/hmp-low-newton-cctv-report-27735145

[4] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/16/police-officers-with-body-worn-cameras-are-more-likely-to-be-ass/

[5] Police officers widely misusing body-worn cameras – BBC News – accessed 29 September 2023