The jail on Wilkinson Road is piloting a computer system that that allows inmates easy access to their court documents using fingerprint scanning technology.
Corrections B.C. has rolled out a touch-screen computer terminal system at the Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre in Saanich and the North Fraser Pretrial Centre, and at five parole offices in the province. VIRCC has two terminals in the jail, which so far gives about 50 inmates computer access to their records.
Inmate identity is authenticated from their fingerprint, which is encrypted and linked with their files on closed network within the Ministry of Justice. It’s the first system in Canada that provides access to offender records using biometric data.
“This is groundbreaking. To our knowledge no other corrections jurisdiction in Canada has a system like this in place. We are pretty excited about leading the way,” said Marnie Mayhew, spokeswoman for B.C. Corrections.
The system is called Integrated Corrections Operations Network (ICON II), an $11 million project that will see the access terminals rolled out in B.C.’s nine jails and 55 parole offices by the end of the year.
One of the key problems that triggered ICON is giving inmates in pre-trial custody ready access to evidence and disclosure documents submitted by the Crown. As asserted by the Supreme Court of Canada, inmates have the legal right to review evidence against them at virtually any time, day or night.
Most evidence submitted by police agencies and the Crown in B.C. is in electronic form and provided to the accused (and his or her lawyer) on a hard drive or CD. The jail would provide a Internet-disabled computer to the inmate to read evidence files, a process Bill Young, project director of ICON II, describes as “problematic and cumbersome.”
“Obviously it’s problematic for offenders to have access to computers,” Young said. “In (pre-trial) custody, they have the right to access a computer 24 hours per day. We can’t determine when they can access their material. … And we have to provide that material and evidence in a secure way, and there could be 20 or 30 other inmates in a living area.”
Victoria criminal defence attorney Paul Pearson said for complex cases, the Crown often floods the accused with tens of thousands of pages of evidence. Typically, a defendant in custody would need to have a computer in their cell for days or weeks to read the documents.
“Material can take hundreds of hours to read through. If you limit that, if you can’t read that stuff, you can’t defend yourself,” said Pearson, of the firm Mulligan Tam Pearson. “Jails struggle with larger cases with hard drives. They don’t like the idea of inmates having unfettered access to a computer.”
Pearson hasn’t seen the ICON system, and said it tweaks privacy concerns, but if it allows inmates better access to court files, it probably is a valuable tool. “Having access to disclosure documents is fundamental to our justice system,” he said. “Anything that helps that process is a good thing.”
Young said B.C. Corrections worked with the B.C. Privacy Commissioner to ensure the system complies with privacy laws. The ICON system itself doesn’t record actual fingerprints – it creates an encrypted string of characters based on the uniqueness of a fingerprint. The system uses “off the shelf” fingerprint scanning technology, but B.C. Corrections and B.C. Shared Services branch created the back-end software that links existing offender and document databases with fingerprint data.
“We can leverage the infrastructure of a central agency like Shared Services B.C. to make this possible,” Young said.
Staff and inmates at Wilkinson Road have given the system a thumbs-up so far, Young said. Beyond evidence documents, inmates can use it to review court orders, court hearing dates, communicate with probation officers, and book medical appointments within the jail. It also eliminates the need for confidential paper documents, which in a jail can be easily lost or stolen.
“Staff like it. It cuts down on routine questions and tasks, and allows staff to focus on supervision,” he said. “We’ve heard offenders like the fact they can look up their own information, and they’d like to see more services like this.”
The fingerprint system will also be used as an additional way to verify the identity of inmates during transfers in and out of jail, and interactions with medical personnel. “It makes sense before medications are issued that the nurse checks that it’s the right inmate,” Young said.
He also noted the computer network is a closed system, and can’t be quietly hijacked by an inmate to access the Internet or hacked from outside. At the same time, ICON is being assessed through the current pilot projects to ensure that is the case.
Young said jurisdictions across Canada struggle with the problem of allowing inmates access to records but limiting access to computers, and are watching the rollout of ICON.
“At some point you have to connect offenders to the electronic world. Where will we be 20 years from now?” Young said.
“B.C. is the first place that has put together an effective set of tools and technology to give access to offenders that protects their legal rights and enhances security.”