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Locked-Down Wireless

New wireless network makes York County Prison security guards more efficient and safer.

Security guards at York County Prison in York, Pa., spend more time making rounds these days instead of sitting behind a desk and mulling through piles of paperwork. In early 2011, the prison installed a new wireless network and distributed handheld devices in a concerted effort to make its security guards more efficient and safer by providing them with mobile access to data about the inmate population.

“The guards are using the wireless network for inventory and population control,” says Tom Williams, assistant director of technology for York County. “Now we have guards out doing their jobs and doing less data entry and less paperwork, which is important.”

York County purchased 13 Cisco Aironet 1142N wireless access points for the prison, spending around $10,000 on the network gear and related power injectors. Guards are able to access the new wireless network using one of 30 Motorola MC75A Worldwide Enterprise Digital Assistant handheld devices the county purchased separately.

Williams says the Cisco APs offered good signal strength in the prison, which is a sprawling, concrete and steel structure that was hard to cover with wireless signals.

“We tried out different wireless access points, and we came back to the Cisco 1142 APs because they had the best overall performance,” Williams says. “There’s no way we could cover the whole thing with signal; it’s a matter of putting the coverage in critical areas to limit movement of the guards.”

Lawful Enforcement

One of the prison’s key concerns about deploying its new wireless network was security. The prison needed to ensure that inmates would not have access to the new wireless network, which is integrated with a Cisco access control system.

“I’m not wild about having a wireless network in a prison, but we were very careful about what product we used to do it and how we set it up,” Williams says.

By integrating its new wireless network with an access control system, York County Prison has taken a radically different approach from some prisons across the country that rely on signal-blocking technology to prevent the use of cell phones by inmates and staff.  

“This is exactly the kind of approach we recommend, which is using existing technology that’s legal to solve this problem, rather than illegal jamming,” says John Walls, vice president of CTIA, a wireless industry association. “The prison officials are looking for secure communications and a way to keep contraband devices out of service.”

CTIA advocates the use of managed access and cell detection software to locate unapproved wireless devices within prisons. The group opposes signal blocking because it is illegal and often disrupts wireless communications in neighboring residential and commercial areas.

 “[York County] appears to be giving its security personnel the advantages of wireless communications and removing those same benefits from the prison population by finding a legal, effective remedy,” Walls says.

10,000
Number of contraband cell phones confiscated from California inmates and staff in 2010

SOURCE: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Expediting Workflow

Williams installed the Cisco wireless network using security templates that the county’s IT department had created for previous installations of similar networking gear. 

The prison is already realizing a return on its investment because guards are noticeably more efficient, allowing the prison to streamline jobs, Williams says.

“It’s helped with workflow. It’s lessening their exposure to the inmates, so it has increased their safety,” he says. “It sets them up for future functionality as mobile computing gets bigger, with the slates and tablets coming down the line.”

Standard Solution

Aiming to standardize its wireless networks on a single platform, York County, Pa., chose the same Cisco 1142N wireless access points used in its prison to be installed in its courthouse and nursing home.

“In the judicial center, we worked with the county bar association, which covered the cost of the wireless network,” says Tom Williams, assistant director of technology for York County.  “We leveraged our existing infrastructure and augmented it with two 1142 APs, which we ran on [the bar association’s] own VLAN to a private pipe on the Internet that’s governed by a WatchGuard device.”

But the best part of having a single standardized platform is that network security can be both focused and distributed. “It’s all monitored and maintained and managed by the York County Bar Association. Logically, it’s completely distinct from my network, so I don’t have to worry about security,” Williams says. “Yet, my staff is able to leverage the wireless access points they installed. It’s a win/win situation.”

Similarly, visiting doctors at the county-run nursing home wanted mobile access to patients’ electronic medical records, which must be maintained under strict guidelines to comply with federal privacy laws. So the county is installing three 1142 APs with power injectors, tying them into the same Cisco access control system that covers the county prison and courthouses. The nursing-home network rollout cost the county about $3,000, but the investment will pay off by providing doctors with wireless coverage in the part of the facility where they make their rounds.

“We’re leveraging the same wireless solution in three different facilities for three different purposes, which shows the versatility of it,” Williams says. He adds that the county saves money with this approach because he has to train employees to use (and stock spare parts for) only one type of wireless network.

In the future, Williams expects that York County will expand its use of secure mobile data in other buildings and applications.

Implementation Advice

Consider the following recommendations for wireless deployment:  

  1. Differentiate between what users want and what they need from the wireless network.
  2. Hire an expert to perform a physical wireless study of the facility to determine how much coverage you can reasonably buy and how much it will cost.
  3. Deploy strong, reliable security for the wireless network from the beginning, rather than tacking it onto the network as an afterthought.
Aug 16 2011

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