In a first, Ohio puts body cameras on guards in every prison

Thousands of Ohio prison guards will wear body cameras for the first time this year, bringing greater transparency within prison walls at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and shortage of guards are making many prisons more dangerous.

Annette Chambers-Smith, the head of the state prison service, said the state is purchasing 5,100 body-worn cameras that will be used by guards and probation officers in all state prisons. Not every guard will always wear a camera, but the program is still ambitious: Axon, the company that supplies the cameras, said the state adopted the largest body-camera program of any prison in the world.

There are already thousands of surveillance cameras in Ohio’s 28 state prisons, but the addition of body cameras could make it easier to assess the actions of guards and inmates, capturing incidents not visible by existing cameras or by other people watching. be hidden from view.

The move comes as several other states have begun to use body cameras in prisons and prisons, albeit on a smaller scale, amid mounting criticism that prison guards, like police officers, are regularly involved in violent encounters involving witnesses with competing versions of events may be involved. .

“This is ultimately about safety, transparency and accountability for everyone who works or lives in our prisons,” Ms Chambers-Smith said in a statement.

The plan to roll out body cameras follows the death in January last year of Michael A. McDaniel, a 55-year-old inmate who collapsed and died after guards pushed him to the ground several times after a fight outside his cell. A coroner ruled his death a homicide, and the prison system fired seven guards and a nurse; two more employees have resigned. No criminal charges were filed.

Surveillance video explained much of the guards’ meeting with Mr. McDaniel, who landed 16 times in less than an hour. But the video missed some key moments: A stairwell blocked much of the initial fight between Mr. McDaniel and the guards, in which investigators determined he had punched two officers, and the cameras captured just part of a takedown minutes later, in which guards appeared to push him outside into the snow.

Mr McDaniel’s sister, Jada McDaniel, said she supported the use of body cameras and believed the guards deliberately implicated her brother behind the stairwell, knowing it partially obscured what was happening. Ms. McDaniel said she thought the guards wouldn’t have been so aggressive towards her brother if they had all carried cameras.

Credit… Jada McDaniel

“My brother would still be alive,” said Ms. McDaniel, who teaches math and science to fourth-graders in Columbus. “They would have thought twice. They probably wouldn’t have taken him out and abused him the way they did. There’s no way they would have taken him behind the stairwell.”

Ms. McDaniel said she believed the guards would also benefit from having more of their interactions in front of the camera.

“The guards also need protection,” she said. “The body camera will catch everything.”

A new prison authority policy regulating on-body cameras says cameras can be activated automatically when a gun or pepper spray is drawn. The policy says the cameras must be on at all times, meaning that even if guards can’t or cannot activate them, video will still be captured and stored for 18 hours.

In prisons and state and federal prisons across the country, officials have struggled to hire enough prison guards for those who have retired, fallen ill from Covid-19 or avoided dangerous assignments, leaving prisons with high infection rates and not sufficient staff to handle potentially violent confrontations.

In New York, stabbings at the massive prison complex on Rikers Island have skyrocketed and gangs have increased their influence in the prison during the pandemic, as some prison guards have taken advantage of a generous sick-leave policy to circumvent prison working. Some guards carry body cameras on the complex, but not all.

In 2019, the sheriff who oversaw the prison in Albany County, NY, said he set up body cameras on guards after several inmates transferred from Rikers Island said they had been abused at the Albany Jail. The sheriff said at the time that he believed the cameras would have proved the officers innocent.

Prison officials in several other states, including Wisconsin and Georgia, have begun placing cameras on some prison guards. A lawsuit in California over allegations that prison staff violated the rights of disabled inmates led a judge to order officers in five state prisons to be provided with cameras. New York state has also tested the technology in some prisons, and New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would put body cameras on every prison guard.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents prison guards in the state, has not opposed the body camera program, but said it was a low priority at a time when there were 1,700 correctional officer job openings, in part because the state did not have one. filled positions of officers who had recently retired.

“To be honest, it’s hell now,” union president Christopher Mabe, a retired sergeant, said of working in Ohio prisons. “Body cameras are a distraction, as far as we’re concerned, from the real and dangerous staffing problems in prisons right now.”

Ms Chambers-Smith, the prison director, said the body-worn cameras would cost $6.9 million in the first year and about $3.3 million a year after that. They were paid for by grants, funding from the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress in response to the 2020 pandemic, and the department’s general budget.

Jonah E. Bromwich and Jan Ransom reporting contributed.

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