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There's a Suicide Detector for Prisons

The Justice Department will install bio-sensors in jail cells that monitor physiological data to catch an attempted suicide in time to intervene.
May 30, 2014, 4:30pm
Image: Shutterstock

In one of the more morbid applications of sophisticated sensor technology, prisons may soon be equipped with devices that can detect when an inmate is attempting to take his or her own life.

Suicide is a huge problem in corrections facilities, and as a potential solution, the Department of Justice will install sensors in jail cells that monitor physiological data like heartbeat, breathing, and movement in order to spot an attempted suicide in time for officials to intervene.

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The "Unobtrusive Suicide Warning System" device is being developed by General Electric and funded by the Justice Department. It's been tested in prisons in Maryland and Massachusetts and may soon be deployed throughout the US, New Scientist reported this week.

It's basically a jacked-up Doppler radar motion sensor. GE took its home security motion sensor device and modified to be hyper-sensitive, so it can pick up on extremely subtle body movement like the rise and fall of the chest as the lungs breathe.

Image: National Institute of Justice

The device compares the physiological data against normal activity and sends a warning sign when there are abnormalities. It's designed specifically to pick up on signs of asphyxia, since hanging or self-strangulation are the most common forms of suicide in prison. In studies with volunteers in mock environments, the prototype was 86 percent accurate, according to a National Institute of Justice report from October.

The next step is to do more trials in prison settings, reduce false alarms, and increase the accuracy level. The sensor works pretty well right now in an empty room, the report says, but things get tricky if it’s put outside where there’s a lot of people and activity.

Another somewhat ironic challenge for the engineers designing the device is to make it robust and "hardened" enough to be suitable for a prison environment. In other works, to make sure it can't be tampered with and used as a weapon.

It's not a totally new concept; South Korea is testing mood-sensing robot prisons guards that patrol the halls with cameras and microphones to detect signs of trouble, including suicide attempts, Reuters reported in 2012.

The DoJ's ‘suicide detector’ is being championed by the government as a potentially life-saving technology, and that’s certainly a good thing, though it obviously addresses the symptom rather than the root of the myriad problems facing the US criminal justice system.

There’s also something uneasy feeling about this extreme level of bio-surveillance outside a medical setting. What else could a device that tracks your every breath from across the room be used for? The wobbly balance between privacy and security is even more off-kilter when you’re incarcerated.