By Marty Roney, USA TODAY
Montgomery, AL-- The Alabama Department of Corrections has enacted a first in the nation policy requiring visitors at the state's prisons to have their fingerprint scanned before they are allowed to enter the facilities.
No other state prison system in the country has a similar requirement, a USA TODAY check of other corrections departments showed.
The change, implemented in August, has its roots in the prison system getting a new computer program, said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
"Our IT department came up with the idea of scanning fingerprints as part of the upgrade," Corbett said. "We still require visitors to have a government issued photo ID, and that requirement will remain in place. But there are times when someone else resembles the photo on an ID. Scanning the fingerprint of visitors verifies they are who they say they are."
The move is drawing some criticism.
State Departments of Corrections routinely require that visitors be approved, and each visitor undergoes a criminal background check. But the fingerprint requirement is "extreme" said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
"Alabama prison officials can't say with a straight face that it is a security issue," Fathi said. "Not when the remaining 49 state prison systems do not require the scanning of visitors' fingerprints. It is an unnecessary barrier to visiting inmates."
"Visiting during incarceration is a key factor that will determine if the inmate will re-offend" after being released, Fathi added. "There is study after study that shows the vital role interaction with family and friends plays with inmates while they are in prison. That support net is very important in the rehabilitation process."
Alabama prison visitors' fingerprints will not be filed in a database, and the prints will not be shared with other local, state or national law enforcement agencies, Corbett said. The prints will not be used to check if the visitors have outstanding warrants, he said. Alabama operates 29 facilities that house about 25,500 adult inmates.
Fingerprint scans, which are used to ensure only those on a list of approved visitors get into the prison, also make the visitation process more efficient, Corbett said.
"Under the old system, the corrections officer had to look at every ID and verify the identity of the visitor," Corbett said. "That was a time consuming task. Now the verification process is much faster."
Fathi isn't buying it.
"If showing a driver's license is all that is required to get on an airplane that will fly you near the White House, it should be enough to get you inside a prison to visit someone," he said.