Company aims to unlock jail software market with biometric expertise

Northern Irish firm breaks into US prison market with new technology for inmates to communicate with family

Patricia O’Hagan, managing director of Belfast-based Core Systems, at Crumlin Road jail. Photograph: Richard Trainor

Patricia O’Hagan, managing director of Belfast-based Core Systems, at Crumlin Road jail. Photograph: Richard Trainor


Not so long ago, working in the security sector in Northern Ireland could have got you killed, according to Patricia O’Hagan, managing director of Belfast-based Core Systems.

Even in recent years ago, staff at the company, which develops security software for prisons, had to be cautious when talking about their work. The company thus avoided all publicity and marketing.

However, an improvement in the political situation in recent years has meant it can be more open about its work. Since the 1990s, the company has been developing innovative biometric solutions that currently play a vital role in maintaining control at a number of high-security facilities.

Core’s software can identify inmates and prison officers from personal characteristics, such as their handwriting, voice, face, hand geometry or even their veins. Unlike a password, pin or swipe card, biometrics can’t be forgotten. It is also a stronger identification method than a swipe card or password as it is non-transferable.

The biometrics solution improves security by ensuring unauthorised individuals are kept out of certain areas, and improves accountability by enabling real-time monitoring.

“An officer can control the locks on prison cells remotely. They can check remotely whether something is locked or not,” according to Diana Atchinson, business development manager at Core Systems.

As well as developing software to improve the way prisons operate, the company has also developed an interactive communication solution for inmates.

The software – called Direct2inmate – enables prisoners to email their friends and family, albeit in strictly controlled circumstances, with messages vetted by prison staff.

“Everything the inmates do is accounted for and can be checked. The email won’t send unless it has been checked by a member of staff,” Ms Atchinson says.

The software can be installed from the cloud on to existing hardware such as TVs, communal kiosks, tablets or cellmates’ personal devices, meaning it is easy to install and scalable. Prisoners can then send messages using the communal kiosk or from their own cell.

Other features
Direct2inmate also has a number of other facets including shop ordering, meal selection, requests and grievances. Prisoners can order items from the shop using a touch screen, and funds will automatically be deducted from their account.

They can air their grievances or make requests via electronic form. They can also select which meals they would like. The device displays meal choices and provides a collated list for the catering staff to ensure inmates receive the correct meal ordered.

Managing director Patricia O’Hagan says the software can be customised for individual prisons. For example, access to music, videos or an electronic law library can be given to inmates.

Faced with a small home market, where there are 1,600 prisoners, O’Hagan says Core Systems had no choice but to look overseas for more customers. The company decided to target the US prison market, as it is the biggest in the world.

“Because it is such a niche market, we had to get off the island of Ireland. There are very few prisons here.”

“The US market is home to one quarter of the world’s prison population. There are 2.2 million prisoners in the US and eight million worldwide.”

She says the US lock people up at a higher rate than anywhere else, with 1 in 100 per head of population in jail in the US compared to 1 in 1,000 in Europe.

O’Hagan says the troubles meant Northern Ireland had to build up a high level of security expertise, something that helped the company attract new customers, as key players in the prison market were aware of Northern Ireland’s knowledge and experience on security issues.

Northern credibility
“When I first went to the US market and started to engage with prisons there, being from Northern Ireland gave a lot of weight and added credibility.”

O’Hagan says there is a large cultural difference between US and European prisons, but that is changing.

“There is more focus on rehabilitation in Europe, whereas in the US it’s all about punishment. But things are changing because of the cost of keeping people in prisons in the US.”

“Re-offending is a big problem in the US, and it is very costly, as the offenders are sent back to jail. American systems are thus looking at rehabilitation now.”

The company’s software is currently in 31 prisons, mostly in the US, and the next step is to look for new market opportunities in Europe.

“We want to expand in Europe next. We will go through a partner rather than direct sell, as the partnership route has worked well for us in the US.”

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