Friday, 29 May 2009 12:35

Linux finds a role in Australian prison cells

By

Cybersource's Linux-based PrisonPC secure desktop system has been installed at another Australian prison. Almost 60 units, plus associated servers, have been installed at the Alexander Maconochie Centre correctional facility in the Australian Capital Territory.

Cybersource developed the PrisonPC system specifically for detention facilities. It is designed to deliver educational, cultural and recreational applications and content in a secure manner.

The Ubuntu Linux based system runs on individual PCs (using Atom CPUs as they are the fastest available that don't require cooling fans), but the environment is locked down and all storage is centralised. This ensures a 'clean' operating environment on each login, even in the relatively unlikely event of malware reaching the system during a previous session.

Individual computers are assigned to 'realms', and this determines which applications are made available. For example, the 'cells' realm might only provide access to applications such as a word processor and spreadsheet along with content of a religious nature, while games might only be available in the 'recreation room' realm.

All user sessions are logged, and printed output is marked with the identity of the prisoner concerned, who can also be charged for the job. User files are stored on the server, and are accessible only by the individual prisoner and authorised custodial staff.

Other controls can prevent the use of modems (a 3G 'stick' modem is small enough to be smuggled into a prison relatively easily), USB storage devices or removable media.

Talking of contraband, PrisonPCs are housed in transparent cases for easy inspection. According to Cybersource, this - along with centralised storage - turns a four-hour task into a four-second look over.

Web access is restricted to white and grey-lists. Greylisted pages are automatically monitored, and if any changes occur they are removed from the list until re-approved by correctional staff.

All incoming and outgoing emails are filtered, quarantined and archived, with a particular goal of preventing communication with victims.

PrisonPC allows the relaying of approved Internet radio streams. The Alexander Maconochie Centre is using the video streaming capability to provide educational and religious programs on demand, but not the ability distribute free to air or cable TV to cells, with optional time-shifting.

What other features are offered, and where else is PrisonPC being used? Find out on page 2.


'Lights out' can be enforced via scheduled shutdown, and if necessary for disciplinary reasons, a PC in a cell can be remotely disabled. According to Ron Fabre, PrisonPC product manager at Cybersource, this is a major benefit for custodial staff as they do not need to enter the cell of a potentially violent prisoner to withdraw the privilege.

"PrisonPC was selected by the ACT correctional facility because of its unparalleled combination of physical and software security attributes," said Fabre.

"Correctional facilities have known for a long time that computers are an excellent tool for prisoner rehabilitation and therefore in the reduction of recidivism. PrisonPC provides an optimal platform for education, offering the delivery of training through video tuition and business desktop applications. Cybersource PrisonPC helps prisoners improve their chances in the real world", he added.

According to Fabre, the cost of keeping people in prison is so high that a complete PrisonPC installation can pay for itself by helping to rehabilitate just one prisoner.

This is the second PrisonPC installation. 130 units were previously rolled out at the Metropolitan Remand Centre in Melbourne, but that used an earlier and less capable version of the software.

Both the Melbourne and ACT centres plan to install additional units during the next financial year.

A third rollout is underway at an undisclosed location.


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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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