Really good article on the huge incarceration rate in the U.S., its causes, its effects, and its value:
Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. Even clauses that Americans are taught to revere are, Stuntz maintains, unworthy of reverence: the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was designed to protect cruel punishments—flogging and branding—that were not at that time unusual.
The author mentions the rise of for-profit businesses increasingly running prisons in the U.S., but I don’t think he makes the point strongly enough. There is now a corporate interest in the U.S. lobbying for such things as mandatory minimum sentencing.
Posted on February 2, 2012 at 9:04 AM •
This seems like a bad vulnerability:
Researchers have demonstrated a vulnerability in the computer systems used to control facilities at federal prisons that could allow an outsider to remotely take them over, doing everything from opening and overloading cell door mechanisms to shutting down internal communications systems.
The researchers began their work after Strauchs was called in by a warden to investigate an incident in which all the cell doors on one prison’s death row spontaneously opened. While the computers that are used for the system control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that control prison doors and other systems in theory should not be connected to the Internet, the researchers found that there was an Internet connection associated with every prison system they surveyed. In some cases, prison staff used the same computers to browse the Internet; in others, the companies that had installed the software had put connections in place to do remote maintenance on the systems.
The weirdest part of the article was this last paragraph.
“You could open every cell door, and the system would be telling the control room they are all closed,” Strauchs, a former CIA operations officer, told the Times. He said that he thought the greatest threat was that the system would be used to create the conditions needed for the assassination of a target prisoner.
I guess that’s a threat. But the greatest threat?
EDITED TO ADD (11/14): The original paper.
Posted on November 14, 2011 at 7:14 AM •
A prison in Brazil uses geese as part of its alarm system.
There’s a long tradition of this. Circa 400 BC, alarm geese alerted a Roman citadel to a Gaul attack.
Posted on August 17, 2011 at 1:51 PM •
Embedded system vulnerabilities in prisons:
Some of the same vulnerabilities that the Stuxnet superworm used to sabotage centrifuges at a nuclear plant in Iran exist in the country’s top high-security prisons, according to security consultant and engineer John Strauchs, who plans to discuss the issue and demonstrate an exploit against the systems at the DefCon hacker conference next week in Las Vegas.
Strauchs, who says he engineered or consulted on electronic security systems in more than 100 prisons, courthouses and police stations throughout the U.S. including eight maximum-security prisons says the prisons use programmable logic controllers to control locks on cells and other facility doors and gates. PLCs are the same devices that Stuxnet exploited to attack centrifuges in Iran.
This seems like a minor risk today; Stuxnet was a military-grade effort, and beyond the reach of your typical criminal organization. But that can only change, as people study and learn from the reverse-engineered Stuxnet code and as hacking PLCs becomes more common.
As we move from mechanical, or even electro-mechanical, systems to digital systems, and as we network those digital systems, this sort of vulnerability is going to only become more common.
Posted on August 2, 2011 at 6:23 AM •
It amazes me that credit card fraud is so easy that you can run it from prison.
Posted on February 14, 2011 at 6:37 AM •
This doesn’t seem like the best idea:
Authorities in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh are planning to set up an outsourcing unit in a jail.
The unit will employ 200 educated convicts who will handle back office operations like data entry, and process and transmit information.
It’s not necessarily a bad idea, as long as misusable information isn’t being handled by the criminals.
The unit, which is expected to undertake back-office work for banks, will work round the clock with three shifts of 70 staff each.
Okay, definitely a bad idea.
Working in the unit will also be financially rewarding for the prisoners.
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 7:29 AM •
When he went to court for hearings, he could see the system was flawed. He would arrive on the twelfth floor in handcuffs and attached at the waist to a dozen other inmates. A correction officer would lead them into the bull pen, an area where inmates wait for their lawyers. From the bull pen, the inmates would follow their lawyers or court officials either up a set of back stairs into a courtroom or down a set of stairs.
The more Tackmann went to court, the more he noticed that once the inmate at the head of the line would get uncuffed and turn into the bull pen, he would be out of view of the correction officer at the back of the line. He could then avoid the bull pen and dart down the rear stairs.
On the morning of September 30, Tackmann prepared for court in Manhattan. He dressed in a light-gray three-piece suit that he thinks was his stepfather’s. He wore two sets of dress socks. One around his feet, the other around the Rikers Island slippers he was ordered to wear (“to make them look like shoes; they looked like suede shoes”).
As he was bussed to the courthouse, he rehearsed the move in his mind.
When you come up to the twelfth floor, you’re handcuffed with like twelve people on a chain. The C.O. is right there with you.You have to be ready, so if the move is there…
That day, the move was there. “I was in the front of the line. The C.O.—it was some new guy. He un-handcuffed us in the hallway, and I was the first one around the corner.”
Tackmann raced down the stairwell and knocked on a courtroom door. A court officer opened it.
Tackmann had the shtick worked out—the lawyer in distress. “You know,” he said, “I was just with a client, and my mother is real sick in Bellevue. Could you tell me how to get to Bellevue? I gotta get over there fast; she is 80 years old.”
He wanted to sprint. The adrenaline was gushing. He calmly walked to the courtroom entrance as the sweat trickled around his neck. He raced down several flights of stairs and tried the door. It was locked. He walked down another flight. Locked. What is going on? Did they find out I was missing already? One more flight down. The door was open. He jumped in an elevator, got out on the ground floor, and walked into the street. Freedom. But not for long.
Posted on January 18, 2010 at 6:57 AM •
You’d think this would be obvious:
Douglas Havard, 27, serving six years for stealing up to £6.5million using forged credit cards over the internet, was approached after governors wanted to create an internal TV station but needed a special computer program written.
He was left unguarded and hacked into the system’s hard drive at Ranby Prison, near Retford, Notts. Then he set up a series of passwords so no one else could get into the system.
And you shouldn’t give a prisoner who is a lockpicking expert access to the prison’s keys, either. No, wait:
The blunder emerged a week after the Sunday Mirror revealed how an inmate at the same jail managed to get a key cut that opened every door.
Next week: inmate sharpshooters in charge of prison’s gun locker.
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 2:32 PM •
Sometimes movie plots actually happen:
…three people have been arrested after police discovered their plan to free a drug trafficker from an island prison using a 13-foot airship carrying night goggles, climbing gear and camouflage paint.
The arrested men had setup an elaborate surveillance operation of the prison that involved a camouflaged tent, powerful binoculars, telephoto lenses, and motion detection sensors. But authorities caught wind of the plan when they intercepted the inflatable zeppelin as it arrived from the Italian town of Bergamo.
EDITED TO ADD (7/14): Another story, with more detail.
Posted on July 8, 2009 at 1:54 PM •
So maybe this isn’t an obvious tactic, and maybe large packages coming into a prison are searched more thoroughly than large packages leaving a prison—but you’d expect prison guards to pay attention to anything large enough for a person to fit into.
At the end of his shift, the inmate climbed into a cardboard box and was taken out of prison by express courier. His whereabouts are still unknown.
I am remembering the tour of Alcatraz I took some years ago, and I think the tour guide talked about someone who tried to escape in a laundry cart. So maybe this isn’t such a new idea after all.
EDITED TO ADD (12/12): He was recaptured.
EDITED TO ADD (12/13): In 1977 Nazi war criminal Herbert Kappler was smuggled out of a hospital, concealed in a large suitcase.
Posted on December 5, 2008 at 7:01 AM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.