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In a first, Ohio is set to install body cameras on guards at every prison

Thousands of Ohio prison guards will begin wearing body cameras for the first time this year, bringing more transparency inside prison walls at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and shortage of guards make many more dangerous prisons.

Annette Chambers-Smith, head of the state corrections agency, said the state is purchasing 5,100 body-worn cameras that will be used by guards and parole officers in all prisons in the state. Not all guards will wear a camera at all times, but the program remains ambitious: Axon, the company that provides the cameras, said the state is adopting the largest body camera program of any prison agency in the world.

There are already thousands of surveillance cameras in Ohio’s 28 state prisons, but the addition of body cameras could make it easier to examine the actions of guards and prisoners, capturing incidents that are not visible to existing cameras or which are blocked by other people.

The move comes as several other states have begun using body cameras in jails and prisons, albeit on a smaller scale, amid growing criticism that prison guards, like police officers, are routinely implicated in violent encounters that may involve witnesses with competing versions of events. .

“It is ultimately about safety, transparency and accountability for everyone who works or lives in our prisons,” Ms Chambers-Smith said in a statement.

The plan to roll out body cameras follows the death in January last year of Michael A. McDaniel, a 55-year-old prisoner who collapsed and died after guards repeatedly pushed him to the ground following a fight outside his cell. A coroner ruled her death a homicide, and the prison system fired seven wardens and a nurse; two other employees resigned. No criminal charges have been filed.

Surveillance video captured much of the guards’ encounter with Mr McDaniel, who found himself on the ground 16 times in less than an hour. But the video missed several key moments: A stairwell blocked off much of the initial scuffle between Mr. McDaniel and the guards, during which investigators determined he punched two officers, and the cameras only captured part of a takedown, minutes later, in which guards appeared to push him into the snow outside.

Mr McDaniel’s sister, Jada McDaniel, said she supported the use of body cameras and believed the guards might have intentionally engaged her brother behind the stairwell, knowing it partially obscured what was happening. Ms McDaniel said she thought the guards wouldn’t have been so aggressive with her brother if they had all been carrying cameras.

Credit… Jada McDaniel

“My brother would still be alive,” said Ms. McDaniel, who teaches math and science to fourth graders in Columbus. “They would have thought twice. They probably wouldn’t have taken him out and abused him like they did. There’s no way they took him behind the stairwell.

Ms McDaniel said she thought guards would also benefit from having more of their interactions on camera.

“The guards also need protection,” she said. “The body camera will capture everything.”

A new prison agency policy governing body cameras says the cameras can activate automatically when a gun or pepper spray is fired. The policy states that cameras must be on at all times, which means that even if guards cannot or do not activate them, video would still be captured and stored for 18 hours.

In state and federal jails and prisons across the country, authorities are struggling to hire enough prison guards to replace those who have retired, become ill with Covid-19 or avoid dangerous assignments, leaving correctional facilities with high infection rates and not enough staff to deal with potentially violent confrontations.

In New York, stabbings at the sprawling Rikers Island prison complex have increased and gangs have increased their influence in the prison during the pandemic, with some prison guards taking advantage of generous sick leave policies. Some guards wear body cameras at the resort, but not all.

In 2019, the sheriff overseeing the Albany County Jail in New York state said he was installing body cameras on guards after several inmates who had been transferred from Rikers Island said they had been abused. at Albany Jail. The sheriff said at the time he believed the cameras would have proven the officers innocent.

Prison authorities in several other states, including Wisconsin and Georgia, have begun installing cameras on some prison guards. A lawsuit in California over allegations that prison workers violated the rights of prisoners with disabilities led a judge to order officers at five state prisons to be equipped with cameras. New York state has also tested the technology in some prisons, and New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would put body cameras on every prison guard.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents prison guards in the state, did not oppose the body camera program, but said it was a low priority at a time when it There were 1,700 vacancies for correctional officers, in part because the state had not filled positions for recently retired officers.

“To be honest, it’s hell right now,” union president Christopher Mabe, a retired prison sergeant, said of his work in Ohio prisons. “As far as we are concerned, body cameras are a distraction from the real and dangerous staffing issues in prisons.”

Ms Chambers-Smith, the director of prisons, said body-worn cameras would cost $6.9 million in the first year and around $3.3 million each year thereafter. They were paid for by grants, funding from the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress in response to the pandemic in 2020, and the department’s general budget.

Jonah E. Bromwich and Jan Ransom contributed report.

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