FORT LAUDERDALE — Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) officials were forced to shut down one of the department’s computer networks after discovering inmates allegedly were manipulating the system to steal, and engage in prohibited communications with one another.
Officials are not disclosing information about the system —which is back online— or their investigation. Citing “internal security reasons,” BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright said the department is “not at liberty to discuss the details.”
However, according to documents obtained by South Florida Times, one BSO official said inmates had figured out a way “to scam money out of the system.” They also said the practice had gone “viral” inside the jails, where inmates were suspected of receiving “free commissary” items.
The abuse occurred with Administrative Service Kiosk (ASK) terminals. They operate on a secured, custom network. The touch screen kiosks allow inmates to order goods from the jail commissary, file grievances, monitor funds deposited into their accounts, and perform other functions.
Several companies make kiosks. Those installed inside Broward jails are manufactured by Canteen Correctional Services, a company located in Mason, Tenn., that provides laundry, food, and other prison-related services. Tampa-based Trinity Services Group is the distributor. Both companies are subsidiaries of The Compass Group, the world’s largest food service contractor.
“I can confirm Broward County Jail is a client,” said Sara Hada, a Canteen Correctional Services spokeswoman. “However, Trinity Services Group cannot comment on issues related to security.”
The Massachusetts firm Prevatek Development LLC maintains BSO’s kiosks network. According to internal documents, BSO officials suspected the inmates were able to communicate with one another due to the way the network was configured. They also expressed dissatisfaction with Prevatek’s initial response to the issue and ordered the system shut down.
Paul Berian, Prevatek’s president and operations manager, declined to discuss the issue when contacted by South Florida Times. “I’m really not sure what you’re talking about,” he said. “I’m really not permitted to talk about any of the software, so I suggest you contact the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.”
Sources said the breach was discovered when items from the jail commissary were continuously being delivered to an inmate with no funds in his account. A confidential informant provided BSO staff with details on how inmates were manipulating the system.
BSO operates five detention facilities that daily house more that 4,600 inmates. The inmates are charged an $8 per day subsistence fee, which is withdrawn from their commissary accounts.
According to documents, the informant showed officials how inmates would place commissary orders and prevent the subsistence fees from being deducted.
The informant said inmates would place orders that exceeded the amount of available funds in their accounts immediately after friends or family members made deposits. After the orders were processed and scheduled for delivery, inmates would return to the kiosk and erase the order. Their accounts would show a negative balance, so the inmates would be considered indigent and the subsistence fee could not be deducted, but the commissary items would be delivered anyway.
When the inmates’ accounts reflected a positive balance from the erased orders, they would sign vouchers to have those funds released to a friend or family member.
Details of what the BSO investigation turned up have not been released, but sources say the amount of money involved is “substantial,” with more than 400 current inmates being issued disciplinary reports accusing them of theft and engaging in disruptive conduct for the improper communications.
“Between July 1, 2011 and August 31, 2011, your account login and password was used in such a manner as to avoid paying the subsistence fee collected from all Broward County inmates,” the disciplinary reports state. “These actions were in cohesion with a large group of inmates currently and formerly in custody in the Broward Sheriff’s Office and are in direct violation of the Sheriff’s Office Code of Conducts (sic) and could constitute theft, under Florida State Statutes.”
The number of inmates who were released prior to the problem being discovered is not known.
Inmate kiosks are intended to streamline processes and cut costs while freeing up staff to perform other functions. They are becoming commonplace in prison facilities around the country. Several companies manufacture the units and they are touted as being highly secure against tampering.
Palm Beach County use kiosks, but only in the lobbies of their facilities for public use, not inside jail cells.
Monroe County operates a three-facility correctional system. In 2010, the county contracted with Aramark Correctional Services to provide inmate kiosk services and have reported few problems.
“We have kiosks in every unit/dorm in all three facilities. To date we have had two cases where inmates were manipulating the system,” Capt. Tim Age, Operations Commander for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, said in an e-mail to South Florida Times.
Age said one incident involved an inmate, who was assigned to the commissary, who used another inmate’s number to order items. The other incident involved a case of an inmate stealing and using another inmate’s password.
The date when BSO installed the kiosks and the costs involved were not immediately available. It is unclear what, if any, punishment has been handed down to the inmates accused of manipulating the kiosks or what steps are being taken to recoup any stolen funds or items.
Revenue from subsistence fees goes to Broward County. County administrator Bertha Henry said she was not aware of the kiosk problem.
*Pictured above is a Canteen Correctional Services kiosk.