The State Department of Corrections sees drones as a possible solution for the Montana State Penitentiary, which is suffering from severe understaffing and prison overcapacity.
On Tuesday, lawmakers and stakeholders heard a presentation about how Nevada is considering using drones as part of a $240 million program to fill prison staff shortages.
Members of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council raised many questions on the issue but did not act at the interim meeting.
In Nevada, the drones are part of a comprehensive surveillance program called Overwatch, which includes thermal imaging cameras and built-in software that allows camera footage to be viewed through a centralized dashboard, according to the Nevada Department of Justice presentation.
Nevada Deputy Director of Support Services DOC Lisa Lucas said the agency has 900 employees out of a budgeted 2,900 jobs and is looking for technology to fill the gaps.
Labor shortages were also a problem for the Montana state penitentiary, with vacancies resulting in mandatory 12-hour shifts and at least a dozen employees picketing in August over poor working conditions.
In August, the state penitentiary was 35 percent understaffed, and on October 31, a DOC spokesman said the staffing shortage had remained constant.
The surveillance program has not yet been implemented in Nevada, Lucas said, but it is part of an overarching $240 million request from the Nevada Legislature that will meet next February. If approved, installation would begin in July, she said.
She said the surveillance and body cameras accounted for $20 million of the total project price to outfit each of the 17 Nevada facilities.
Nevada DOC’s Matthew Gregory said the idea for drones is to be able to provide “upper cover”.
“Let’s say there was a fight in the yard,” he said. “It takes off and brings you an eye camera, which then connects to your video system and your body cameras and your radios, and that gives you a better approach and helps the incident commander take control of the scene.”
The speakers also discussed the safety implications of low staffing and a high inmate population.
Lucas said without guards in the towers, they had an escapee from one of the Las Vegas facilities and didn’t know he was gone for four days.
The Glendale Police Department in Arizona implemented this program at a local level, and Lucas said they were able to see the technology in action and that it was “amazing.” She said Motorola is the company behind the technology.
“We’ve got this whole wall of screens and we’ve been watching live what’s happening. We saw a car stolen while we were watching,” Lucas said.
Lucas said she has no calculation for how many positions the technology could replace.
“We’re trying to think outside the box of how we’re going to fix any staffing shortages to keep everything safe and secure,” Lucas said.
Although Montana is exploring drones as a solution, criminal justice advocates have dismissed the idea that more surveillance is the answer.
Just this fall, Jodi Hocking, founder of the Nevada criminal justice nonprofit Return Strong, told Politico that the answer to this problem is decarceration.
“The answer isn’t drones and wristbands,” Hocking said.
At the meeting, Yellowstone County Attorney and Council Member Scott Twito asked about the methods Nevada DOC uses to recruit and retain full-time employees.
Lucas said they are considering potentially allowing office workers to work from home some days a week, as the department has lost staff to other sectors that allow full-time work from home. They also attended community colleges and spoke to high school seniors as part of recruitment efforts. She said increases are not in play because former Gov. Steve Sisolak, who just lost his re-election campaign, did not want to raise taxes.
Montana Department of Justice director Brian Gootkin said the department’s Jim Anderson went to the Nevada DOC proof-of-concept presentation. In his comments, he talked about how drones could be used to drop paraphernalia in prisons, but that there are also drones designed to “hunt drones.”
“There are a number of technologies that we’re looking at now,” said Gootkin, a member of the council.