Back to All Commentary

Inaccurate Facial Recognition in Prisons is Keeping Families Apart

NY's prisons are deploying facial recognition on visitors.

monticello / Shutterstock
By: Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications

Before they are allowed to see their loved ones, New Yorkers visiting people in prison must endure a number of burdensome, uncomfortable, and sometimes demeaning procedures. Now, based on information uncovered by the NYCLU, we know they’re also under the invasive, error-prone surveillance of facial recognition technology.

This technology — one of several deployed by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) — has prevented untold numbers of family members from seeing their loved ones based on false alerts triggered by technology that is known to be racially biased.

All prison visitors must submit their names to the facility for approval and present their ID for inspection when they arrive. All visitors must also go through a metal detector or be wanded with a hand scanner before they are physically searched.

From there, it’s up to corrections officers how many more steps visitors have to take before they’re allowed to see their loved ones. They may have to lift up their shirt to show their waistline, and they may even have to be strip searched. If a visitor refuses to submit to any of these measures, they are not allowed in. Prison workers are also allowed to rescind incarcerated people’s visitation privileges if they break any prison rules.

These policies and procedures are well-established, but there is one other hurdle visitors must overcome that has been kept under wraps until recently. DOCCS deploys flawed and racially-biased technology that scans people’s faces when they visit prisons across the state. If a visitor’s face is said to match with a person who is barred from DOCCS facilities, that visitor is not let in.

Study after study shows that facial recognition is inaccurate, especially when used against Black people and other people of color. That has major racial justice implications in a New York prison system in which 75 percent of those who are locked up are Black or Latinx. Undoubtedly, the people impacted most by the use of this technology in New York prisons are Black and Latinx people and their family and friends.

The use of facial recognition is alarming and just one more barrier that keeps New York families — the vast majority of whom are Black and Latinx — needlessly separated.

Visits from family and friends are a vital lifeline for people in prison. They often serve as one of the only connections to the outside world and research shows they play a huge role in determining whether someone will get arrested again after they’re released.

DOCCS itself recognizes these positive impacts. The Department says it “encourages visits by family and friends, which can be a positive influence during the time a person spends in prison and after their release.” Yet DOCCS has deployed racially-biased technology in an already racially-discriminatory corrections system, further threatening the personal connections that are critical for people who are incarcerated and those closest to them.

The NYCLU started digging into DOCCS’ use of facial recognition after being contacted by a person whose cousin was barred from seeing his family member because of the technology. After travelling over six hours to visit the family member in solitary confinement at Walkill Correctional Facility, the cousin was turned away after he was wrongly identified by a facial recognition camera as someone banned from visiting.

A prison official conceded that the cousin didn’t look like the person with whom he matched. He had no arrest record and had never been to a correctional facility before but the technology matched him, and that was enough for the prison to deny the family visit. It would have been the first time the cousin had seen his family member in five years.

After hearing his story, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law request in September 2020 seeking information on the Department’s use of facial recognition in its facilities. Four months later, DOCCS denied our request in its entirety. Last year, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit against DOCCS to force it to turn over information, and in December 2022, a state judge ordered the Department to turn over some of the documents we were seeking.

Through this process, we discovered that DOCCS uses facial recognition in all of the prisons it oversees despite having no publicly available information about its use. We also learned that DOCCS didn’t do any studies or analyses of the bias inherent in this technology, nor did it create a process through which misidentifications can be challenged and corrected. This means people who are flagged by this error-prone technology have no clear way to challenge false alerts.

Because DOCCS successfully withheld many of the documents we requested, we were unable to determine whether the Department shares facial recognition images with other law enforcement agencies like ICE. We also don’t know if the Department has policies governing how images are collected, how long they’re stored, and who has access to them.

Prison visits are critical to the well-being of people who are incarcerated and to their loved ones. Yet there are many obstacles that too often prevent these visits from taking place. The use of facial recognition is alarming and just one more barrier that keeps New York families — the vast majority of whom are Black and Latinx — needlessly separated.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union