Southwestern Communications in Decatur, Ala., has spent about 30 years behind bars … installing integrated security systems, access controls, cameras and utility override controls in county jails, state prisons, police stations, juvenile detention facilities and courthouses across the Southeastern U.S. and beyond, including Essex County in the Boston area.
The work started when SWC was a subcontractor on a job at state prisons in 1989 and has become one of the headline parts of the business in the past 20 years, with a detention services division created in 1998.
Clearly, there is a mission-critical element to this type of work, since if there’s anything wrong with the system SWC installed, it could lead to a prison break or something worse. Division director Rick Holmes knows there’s a lot at stake in every job he oversees but he embraces the challenge that comes with it.
It doesn’t take long to realize you’re doing integration in a different environment when installing integrated security systems in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities, says Holmes. Although SWC often works in buildings that are under construction and thus unoccupied, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many times when they’ll do a retrofit of an existing prison or jail.
“It’s definitely pretty specialized,” says Southwestern Communications’ Rick Holmes about the prison facilities market, but there’s ample opportunity for integrators that can tackle mission-critical environments.
About 70 percent of SWC’s work is performed in new buildings, with the other 30 percent or so of the retrofit variety.
In those cases, installers must have prison guards with them at all times as escorts, says Holmes, a move that’s made for their safety but can sometimes slow down the progress of an installation when they forget a tool, need a replacement piece of equipment or another unexpected change comes up.
Even though prisoners in existing buildings are vacated from the areas where SWC works on a given day, the guards work with the installers to ensure control of their equipment and tools and to make sure they walk out of the facilities with everything they brought.
“The last thing we’d want to happen is for one of our tools to get in the hands of one of the prisoners,” says Holmes.
Before entering a detention center of any kind, SWC technicians go through training related to the Prison Rape Elimination Act. There are no women in the field for SWC but Holmes says that could happen someday and they’d welcome anyone who’s willing and able to do the job to join them.
It’s an intense existence, which means it’s not always easy to find good help, he says.
“One of the challenges we face is finding qualified people who are willing to do the work,” says Holmes, noting there are about 32 people in SWC’s detention division. “Not a lot of people know something like this exists. It’s definitely pretty specialized.”
The company also does work in healthcare facilities and schools and colleges, but Holmes notes there’s no crossover among the three parts of the company.
Holmes says he’s never had any issues with prisoners while installing systems and doesn’t recall any for anyone at SWC either.
“The inmates aren’t aggressive toward contractors,” says Holmes. “If you think about it, their cells are their homes and we’re the guys in there fixing problems with their homes. I’ve never felt threatened. They tend to watch out for us.”
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