urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Evaluating the Use of Radio Frequency Identification Device Technology to Prevent and Investigate Sexual Assault and Related Acts of Violence in a Women's Prison

Read complete document: PDF

PrintPrint this page
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Digg Share on Reddit
| Email this pageE-mail
Document date: October 01, 2009
Released online: October 30, 2009

The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full report with references in PDF format.


The application of radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology to prevent inmate misconduct in a women's prison in Cleveland, Ohio was evaluated. An interrupted time series design was employed to analyze administrative data. Interviews were conducted with 89 inmates and 21 correctional and investigative staff. A process evaluation found that the advanced applications of the RFID system theorized to prevent inmate misconduct were not initiated. The resulting study evaluates RFID when employed at its most basic level as a perimeter control device and aid in investigations and finds that rates of inmate misconduct did not change significantly over the evaluation period.


In recent years, the problem of sexual violence in correctional facilities has gained national prominence, largely due to the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 (Public Law 108-79, now codified as 45 U.S.C. 15601 to 15609). As stated in the Act, sexual violence may present serious problems in correctional facilities, affecting not just the victims of violence but the correctional population as a whole. In response to the increased attention on this issue, correctional administrators have sought ways in which to harness new training methods, management tools, and technologies. The focus of this evaluation is to explore the use and effectiveness of one such measure: radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology, which enables correctional staff to track inmate locations in an effort to prevent prohibited acts, including sexual assault. In correctional facilities, RFID transmitter chips can communicate the locations and movements of inmates within prison facilities to staff. The technology can be programmed to issue alerts when inmates are out of place, in prohibited locations, or in proximity to individuals with whom they have conflict. In addition, RFID historical records can be used to investigate allegations of inmate misconduct.

While the most recent estimates of sexual assault behind bars are relatively low (Beck et. al 2007), perceptions of the risk of sexual assault and related violence have far reaching consequences for the victims of such acts as well as for the quality of life of all incarcerated persons. In addition to the well-documented pain and trauma associated with sexual victimization, such abuse behind bars may increase the victim’s propensity to commit violence both within the facility and on the outside (Dumond 1992). The psychological trauma of victimization can also have important implications for mental health and substance addiction, leading to reintegration challenges upon release (Dumond and Dumond 2002). The gravity of this issue suggests that RFID technology designed to support prison management efforts to prevent sexual assaults, to effectively investigate them, and to increase inmates’ perceptions of safety from sexual victimization, would benefit the entire culture of a prison.

RFID technology enables users to authenticate, locate, and track objects or people tagged with a unique identifier (NLECTC 2005). In correctional settings, inmates can be fitted with RFID units on their ankles or wrists that enable correctional officers to track their locations and movements, potentially increasing the perceived risks of being detected when engaging in sexual assaults and other prohibited behaviors. RFID technology may deter inmates from committing prohibited acts by increasing their perceived risk of detection, especially when officers confirm inmates’ perceptions by responding to RFID alerts and following through with disciplinary action. Similarly, it is feasible that RFID increases inmates’ perceptions of safety from sexual assault based on the belief that perpetrators are more likely to be apprehended. Moreover, because the system maintains historical data on inmates’ locations, RFID may be a useful tool for investigating assaults, identifying which inmates were at the location where the assault took place, and aiding in the substantiation of allegations of sexual and other assaults. Thus, from a theoretical perspective, RFID technology should effectively increase an inmate’s perceived risk of detection for both the perpetration of sexual assaults and the reporting of false allegations.

In 2006, the Urban Institute completed an evaluability assessment of RFID technology funded by the National Institute of Justice. The assessment investigated how RFID technology was being implemented in correctional settings across the country and found that 13 correctional facilities had implemented or were in the process of implementing RFID at that time. That study, however, simply identified likely evaluation sites, as evaluating the impact of RFID technology on prison management at these locations was beyond the scope of the contract (La Vigne 2006, see Appendix B for details). From a knowledge building perspective, no published evaluations currently exist of RFID use as a correctional management tool, much less as a tool to prevent sexual and other violence. Correctional institutions across the country have expressed interest in obtaining RFID systems, but may be hesitant to expend scarce correctional resources in the absence of reliable evidence that the technology works. This evaluation therefore fills an important gap in the literature, examining whether inmate tracking through RFID technology is an effective measure both to prevent sexual and other violence as well as to aid in the investigation of such acts.

(End of excerpt. The full report with references is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

Usage and reprints: Most publications may be downloaded free of charge from the web site and may be used and copies made for research, academic, policy or other non-commercial purposes. Proper attribution is required. Posting UI research papers on other websites is permitted subject to prior approval from the Urban Institute—contact publicaffairs@urban.org.

If you are unable to access or print the PDF document please contact us or call the Publications Office at (202) 261-5687.

Disclaimer: The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Copyright of the written materials contained within the Urban Institute website is owned or controlled by the Urban Institute.

Email this Page