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Transition of Body-Worn Cameras from Policing to Corrections

Jasmine Kaur

University of New Haven

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Incapacitation through incarceration is one of the widely adopted ways of responding to individuals who pose a risk to public safety. Following this reliance on incarceration to reduce crime, the United States has adopted punitive policing and sentencing policies to fight crime. As a result, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (World Population Review, 2022; Fair, & Walmsley, 2021). While this approach may potentially reduce the public’s fear of crime in communities, high imprisonment rates increase various problems inside the prisons, such as overcrowding, shortage of resources, and vulnerability to violence committed by both incarcerated individuals and prison staff (Dodd et al., 2020). More specifically, evidence suggests that assault rates within prisons are significantly higher than outside of prisons (Modvig, 2014). To complicate matters further, violence and assaults further aggravate mental health problems among the incarcerated population, as well as prison staff.

Recognizing the unintended negative consequences of high incarceration rates, correctional institutions in many countries (notably the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) recently have launched body-worn camera (BWC) programs inside prisons (Beales & Marsh, 2016). The introduction of BWC technology is based on the general theory of deterrence, in which the presence of this technology is expected to deter individuals from engaging in wrongdoing, at least within its presence (Dodd et al., 2020). Foucault (1975/1977) likely would argue that BWC technology is a way to instill discipline and reinforce disciplinary power over those who are under surveillance. Within his work on disciplinary power, Foucault (1975/1977) posited that prisons transform incarcerated individuals into docile bodies by breaking their will through constant supervision. BWC technology is a contemporary form of constant supervision.

Research suggests that an introduction of BWC may increase the perception of safety among both officers and the incarcerated population, reduce officers’ use of force, assist in verifying complaints against officers, and create transparency around officers’ conduct while executing their duties (Ariel et al., 2015; Dodd et al., 2020). However, the evidence in support of this argument is not conclusive. For instance, consistent with the Foucault’s (1975/1977) position that constant surveillance may make individuals worse, Ariel et al. (2016) reported that body cameras resulted in an increase in violent incidents against officers. Therefore, more robust research is required, especially in the context of corrections, to evaluate the effectiveness of emerging surveillance technology in prisons.

The purpose of this paper is to study the extent and effectiveness of BWCs in corrections. The topic is important and timely, because a BWC program is more likely to succeed if both correctional staff and inmates embrace it, and it is implemented according to established standards. Therefore, it is critical to understand the perceptions of BWC programs from the perspective of both officers and the incarcerated population, with regard to the effectiveness of body cameras in reducing violence and misconduct in prisons. The findings of research can advance our understanding of the emerging technology of BWCs in correctional facilities. This paper also aims to highlight the considerations that correction officials must take into account while implementing these programs. Additionally, policy implications and suggestions for future research are discussed. 


Previous Research Findings

Along with body cameras, closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology has been adopted as another method of surveillance in prisons. Studies have explored the impact of CCTV and have highlighted distinct roles that this technology plays in prisons compared to other community settings. In one such study in Australia (Allard et al., 2006), evidence pointed towards the effectiveness of CCTV in the detection of unlawful activities (such as entry of contraband) and in the gathering of evidence. In a subsequent study, Allard et al. (2008) highlighted that CCTV is more effective in controlling non-violent behavior compared to violent behavior. The same study also indicated that the deterrent effect of CCTV was greater for unplanned misbehavior than on planned misbehavior in prisons. Extending this line of research, Debus-Sherrill et al. (2016) evaluated the impact of CCTV in jail settings. Their study found mixed results about the perception of safety among incarcerated individuals and jail staff. It also uncovered no effect on reported incidents. Therefore, existing studies have produced mixed results about the perceptions of CCTV surveillance among prison staff and prison populations, along with the effect of CCTV on various forms of misbehavior. It is important to consider if body worn cameras will offer improved benefits compared to the use of CCTV in corrections.

While the use of BWCs in prisons is a relatively new development, BWCs were introduced in policing about two decades ago (Taylor et al., 2017). Research focused on BWCs in policing has explored officers’ and arrested individuals’ perceptions towards this technology and its impact on police organizations (Lum et al., 2019). A study conducted in Australia revealed a general positive attitude of arrestees towards police BWCs (Taylor & Lee, 2019). Although arrestees felt that BWCs did not help in crime reduction, their use was perceived as being effective in producing a civilizing effect— citizens were less likely to engage in violence and officers were less likely to employ use of force, which is consistent with White’s (2014) observations. These results also resonate with Douglas’s (2021) assessment of the impact of BWCs on police victimization, which indicated that body cameras are effective in reducing violent incidents against officers. Similar to these findings, in a randomized controlled trial, Jennings et al. (2015) reported a reduction in the incidents of response-to-resistance by 53%, as well as reduction in the complaints against officers by 65%, after the adoption of BWCs (p. 480).

However, mere adoption and assignment of cameras may not lead to desired outcomes. Research suggests that outcomes of the police-citizen encounter are contingent on the officer’s compliance with activation policies. An evaluation of the outcomes of police-citizen encounter incidents revealed that, as opposed to BWCs assignment, actual activation of BWCs is associated with arrests, police-initiated contact, and use of force (Huff et al., 2018). More specifically, officers who activated body cameras while interacting with citizens were less likely to initiate contacts and were more likely to make arrests and employ excessive force.

While these results are inconsistent with the findings of other two other studies (Taylor & Lee, 2019; White, 2014), they received support from Andreescu and Kim (2022), in that those agencies registering a greater incident of officers’ use of force were more likely to resist the BWC program. Noting that the effectiveness of a BWC program is contingent on whether officers use the BWC as intended. Andreescu and Kim (2022) highlighted several factors that are associated with the agency’s support for BWCs. Their analysis indicated that agencies that acknowledged the importance of this technology and had accepted other surveillance mechanisms in the past were more likely to embrace the adoption of body cameras. Therefore, based on a review of this literature, it appears that the existing research in policing has produced results that are in the direction of supporting the positive impact of BWCs.


Contemporary Research: Methods and Findings

While studies have offered some support for the use of BWCs in policing (Jennings at al. 2015; White 2018; White, 2014), transition of this technology into corrections raises an interesting question concerning possibilities of effectiveness in prisons. Since BWCs have been introduced only recently into correctional institutions, there is a paucity of research assessing the impact of increased surveillance on prison violence and perceptions of safety. One evaluation on the use of BWCs in two prisons in New Zealand, conducted by Beales and Marsh (2016), found some support for the effectiveness of BWCs in corrections facilities. More specifically, this research found that BWCs improved staff’s perception of safety and reduced the number of assaults against correctional officers.

Dodd et al. (2020) more recently conducted a mixed-methods study to explore correctional officers’ perceptions about the new and emerging technology (body cameras) in the prisons in Queensland, Australia. In addition, they also explored the relationship between officers’ support for BWCs and several factors related to officers’ characteristics, along with the functionality and implementation of technology. The researchers distributed a survey instrument and conducted interviews with officers in correctional institutions across the state. Guided by the previous research on BWCs in the policing context, survey questions were distributed in the correctional facilities via email as well as offline for those who preferred paper-based surveys. With a response rate of 22%, they gathered respondents’ demographic information, along with information relevant to assessing the impact of BWCs. In their survey sample, 64% of the respondents were males, compared to their interview sample in which 71% of the participants were males.

This study found evidence that is generally supportive of BWCs, with some limitations. Highlighting the gender differences in perceptions, Dodd et al. (2020) reported that women officers held more supportive views about the introduction of BWCs in prisons. As expected, those who viewed the functionality and implementation of BWCs as troublesome or problematic were least supportive of the adoption of BWCs. Moreover, some participants showed fewer positive attitudes towards this added technology and reported an increase in stress after the implementation of BWCs program. The evidence is consistent with the findings of other BWC research.

Gaub et al. (2020) reported that some officers expressed BWCs as an added burden, especially if they forget to activate the camera while interacting with the public. Interestingly, Dodd et al. (2020) found an insignificant impact of age and education on support for BWCs in the corrections context. In contrast, studies in the policing context found a significant effect of these two factors on the officers’ support of body cameras (Fouche, 2014; Huff at al. 2018). Dodd et al. (2020) also highlighted some important considerations and implementation challenges that must be taken into consideration by authorities while implementing the BWC program. Specific issues in this domain pertain to the accessibility of footage by officers for report writing, training of officers in using the technology, and the need for establishing turn-on policies for guiding the officers’ actions. Overall, Dodd et al. (2020) reported that the perceived benefits of this new technology among correctional officers outweigh the perceived limitations. However, there appears to be an inherent limitation in this study. The participants for the interviews were recruited from the survey sample, which may limit the robustness, accuracy, objectivity, and generalizability of the findings.

Utilizing a mixed-methods research design, Syed et al. (2022) conducted a similar study to assess whether BWCs influenced officers’ perception of physical and professional safety in Queensland, Australia, prisons. In the first phase, a statewide survey was administered. In the second phase, detailed follow-up interviews were conducted for a deeper dive into the survey information. Authors addressed two specific questions: First, if adoption of BWCs improves officers’ perception of safety; and second, if those perceptions vary by officer characteristics, prison attributes, and the frequency of BWC usage. Using a Likert type seven-point scale, the officers’ responses were coded between 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree). The authors studied the statistical distribution of the dependent variables (safety perceptions) in their first stage of analysis, and at the next stage, the estimated regression models to quantify the influence of various officer, prison, and frequency of usage attributes (gender, age, education, prison type, frequency of BWC usage) on perceived safety.

Overall, the findings reflected mixed perceptions about the main question of increased physical safety or improved behavior among the incarcerated population due to BWC. Most participating officers disagreed with the statement that BWC's led to a decline in aggression committed by the incarcerated population. Detailed interviews supported the survey findings, in that the majority of participants did not feel physically safer with BWCs. The authors suggested that women prison staff were more likely to feel safer wearing BWCs compared to their male counterparts. Interestingly, officer or prison specific attributes, including the frequency of wearing BWCs, did not show up as significant influences on perceptions about physical safety. The results also suggest that officers working in both men's and women's correctional facilities were less likely to perceive BWCs as effective in reducing prisoner on staff assaults.

With respect to professional safety, the findings indicated a significant majority perceived BWCs as having a positive impact on professional safety, as they help reduce the threat of false allegations or frivolous complaints by prisoners. There was also evidence of positive perceptions in terms of improved evidence gathering, accuracy, and transparency around officer-prisoner interactions. Correctional officers felt that more accurate and verifiable evidence provided them with a sense of professional safety. Furthermore, the detailed interviews provided complementary supporting evidence to the survey evidence on physical and professional safety. Finally, while the women officers’ perceptions were more positive with respect to the impact of BWCs on safety, other attributes did not seem to relate to variations in perceptions.

In addition to current perceptions, predisposition to accepting technology may determine attitudes toward BWCs among officers. Arguing that greater openness to technology acceptance, reflected in pre-adoption attitude of officers, may serve as an indicator of receptiveness to the technology, Bartholomew et al. (2021) examined officers’ attitudes towards BWCs.  In contrast to previous research on officers’ experience-based acceptance of BWCs, Bartholomew et al. (2021) examined officers’ attitude towards BWCs prior to them having any experience with BWC technology. Adopting a quasi-experimental field design, police officers belonging to three different police districts were surveyed. The authors used multiple regression to quantify the effect of four attitudinal factors (usefulness of BWCs for community behavior, officer safety, evidentiary value, supervisory sanctions) and five demographic characteristics of officers (ranks, gender, years of service, education, and ethnicity) on officers’ receptivity. While the study did not find overall strong receptivity among the officers surveyed, their regression model explained around 35 % of variability in receptivity among those surveyed. Among the factors explaining the receptiveness variability, perceived positive impact of BWCs on officer safety was the strongest and most statistically significant determinant of receptivity. Community members’ behavior was also found to be significantly and positively related to receptivity, as was evidentiary use. The results support the notion that prior beliefs that BWCs may help improve community members’ behavior, and offer more reliable evidentiary information, increase officers’ receptivity to BWCs. In contrast, beliefs about supervisory sanctions did not influence receptivity.

While this latter study used robust methodology to establish associations between receptivity and its hypothesized determinants, the model could not establish causality. By their very nature, attitudes, believes, and perceptions, as limited as hypothesized determinant variables. Thus, the results may not reflect generalizable or verifiable existence of the relationship between receptivity and attitudes towards BWCs among other samples. The well-known limitations of the survey approach, in terms of reliability, accuracy, and objectivity of responses, makes results less robust and generalizable.


Policy Implications and Future Research Suggestions

Despite the fact that research on BWCs in prisons is in its infancy and presents limitations, the literature on the effectiveness of BWCs in policing and corrections suggests several policy implications. First, officers must receive training in the use of this added technology (Dodd et al., 2020). Officers who feel comfortable in operating the technology are more likely to wear and use it while discharging their duties (Dodd et al., 2020). Second, officers must be familiarized about the usefulness and benefits of BWCs before they are actually asked to wear them. Officers can be made more receptive by highlighting the benefits in terms of better community members’ behavior, increased officer safety, and evidentiary value of BWCs (Bartholomew et al., 2021). Third, prison authorities must establish turn-on policies to guide officers in the appropriate usage of BWCs. Officers have expressed concerns that if they will be required to record all the interactions with incarcerated individuals, it will affect their rapport with prison population (Dodd et al., 2020).

While implementing BWCs in corrections, it is important to assess the relationship between recidivism and increased surveillance. Russell (2022) highlights that being recorded at all times can have adversarial impact on the rehabilitative ability of incarcerated individuals. Similar concerns were raised in a recent study conducted in the U.S., in which authors described that incarcerated individuals were more isolated and frustrated in highly secure and high-tech prisons (Trammell et al., 2021). This further increases the likelihood of violence committed by prison population. Therefore, turn-on policies should be made by considering the dynamics of all the factors that can potentially affect the outcomes of the criminal justice system. Finally, the organizational culture and structure, as well as community contextual factors, should be considered when adopting policy towards BWCs.

Although there is an emerging body of literature focusing on the adoption of BWCs in prisons worldwide, one can argue that to establish firmly that BWCs will provide benefits in corrections, more rigorous research is needed to assess the true impact of BWCs (Crime and Corruption Commission Queensland [CCCQ], 2018). While there is a growing body of literature on BWCs that shows support among officers, gaps remain that future research should address. First, given that researchers have reported variations in the perceptions of officers across different correctional departments, there is a need for conducting further analysis to identify underlying factors that influence officers’ perception of BWC technology (Gaub et al., 2016). Addressing differential factors across departments can help in increasing officers’ support for body cameras and promoting officers’ and inmates’ perception of safety within correction facilities. Second, future research should include temporal analysis on the changes in officers’ perceptions towards BWCs. Gaub et al. (2016) highlighted the change in officers’ attitude over time. The changing perceptions dynamic opens the opportunities for conducting longitudinal research tracing the participants’ perceptions over time and discovering temporal patterns to track the effectiveness of body camera technology in prisons over time (Ellis et al., 2015). Third, different units within the correction facilities need to be studied for their unique attributes to leverage the advantages of technology in various settings (Gaub et al. 2020).

Effectiveness of BWCs cannot be generalized to all types of correctional facilities and equally among specialized wings or units within the prisons. For instance, according to PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003) data collection activities report (2021), rates of sexual victimization are reported to be higher in juvenile justice facilities compared to those in adult prisons (U.S. Department of Justice, 2021). Surveillance methods like BWCs potentially can deter and reduce incidents of assaults. Thus, future research should focus on individual units within correctional domains in assessing the impact of BWC technology. Lastly, future studies can benefit from analyzing dynamics in the relationship between the number of complaints against officers and officer’s support for BWCs in police departments and correctional facilities (Andreescu & Kim, 2022).



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