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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2023

WRISTBANDS—Wristband Technology Stores Data on Inmates, Patients

When Darrell Felton was released from a Massachusetts jail last February, few realized that he was not who he seemed to be. The 20-year-old repeat offender had switched plastic identification wristbands with his brother Matthew, who was in the same jail but on a lesser charge and soon to be released on bail. Darrell Felton managed to evade police for 14 hours, but was eventually captured when his brother’s friend, who posted the bond, called police. The incident is unfortunately not all that uncommon in today’s jails and perhaps one of the biggest reasons why San Fernando’s Precision Dynamics Corp. is pushing new electronic wristband technology with county jail officials and police departments. Had the Felton brothers been wearing its new Smart Band wristband, they would not have been able to remove it and exchange identities without electronically alerting jail officials, the company says. The Smart Band is a new generation of electronic identification devices being tested at hospitals and jails that contains microchip technology that can track and identify the wearer. In the case of inmates, it allows jail officials instant updates on their status, location and police records. But unlike Felton’s wristband, this one is impossible to remove without alerting authorities. Electronic ankle or wristbands cannot be removed, allowing prison officials to continually monitor the whereabouts of inmates. However, many jails use flimsier, but cheaper, plastic ID tags. The bands, currently being tested, are smaller and less expensive versions of traditional electronic ankle monitors. They are nearly impossible to break and contain transmitters that allow jail officials to locate an inmate electronically and gather information unlike the older, less sophisticated ankle monitor. Moreover, new information can be added to a file on the inmate changes in status, added sanctions or privileges that can then be accessed by other officials by way of the wristband. It can also be used by inmates as a sort of debit card when they make purchases at the jail store. “In the past, you had to show the band, for instance, or you couldn’t scan it. Now, it can be read through the arm and through clothing,” said Oswaldo Penuela, vice president of operations and engineering for privately held Precision Dynamics. The Smart Band is made of a sturdy plastic that is nearly paper thin and carries an integrated circuit board with a tiny antenna. Scanners can read the tags and transfer the information onto a database to keep constant track of a prisoner’s whereabouts. John Gordon, a spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, said the department is talking with Precision Dynamics about a potential contract. “It’s the next step in improving security in the county jail,” Gordon said. Identification mix-ups with inmates have resulted in several dangerous inmates walking away during transfers to the county Court House in downtown Los Angeles, he said. But because the band is impossible to remove without officials knowing it, exchanging them would be impossible. Company officials say it would reduce the element of human error in identifying inmates, and it can lock in information on the chip so that it cannot be modified. County Sheriff’s officials say the new electronic band would mark the first time high-tech wristbands would be used to track prisoners in L.A. County jails. Previously, jails used wristbands with names on them or with bar codes, Penuela said. But now, the wristbands can provide criminal history and other personal information. Penuela said the company is also in contact with several area police departments that have expressed interest in the wristbands for their own jail facilities. Precision Dynamics has made non-electronic plastic identification bracelets for hospitals since it was founded in 1956. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the company first began developing an electronic wristband or so-called “Radio Frequency Identification Band” containing a microchip that stores medical information about a patient. Irwin Thall, sales manager for Precision, said the band is the first such application of radio frequency and microchip technology, although similar technology is used on the Speed Pass, a key chain-sized device used to pay for gasoline at Mobil Oil gas stations made by another company. With a special reader, hospital staff can check the information on the wristband. So far only Kaiser Permanente has agreed to test the product at one of its facilities. Smart Bands are now being tested at Magic Waters, a water park in Chicago, and a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service holding facility in Batavia, N.Y. Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council, said Precision Dynamics is on the cutting edge of wristband technology. “I don’t believe anyone has gone as far as they have in that area,” he said, adding that hospital wristbands have changed very little in the past 30 years. A drop in cost in the microchip sector has made the bands even more affordable, costing the companies that use them about 50 cents each, instead of about $100 10 years ago, Penuela explained. Band scanning equipment starts at $300 and goes up to $3,000, depending on the size and scope of the system. Marketing of these Smart Bands has just begun, so the company is reluctant to discuss revenue estimates. Thall said Precision Dynamics can produce up to 8 million wristbands each year. Already, Precision Dynamics says it collects between $30 million and $40 million from its non-electronic wristband business, which includes sales to theme parks.

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