Aussie prisoners escape lock-in with Ubuntu PCs

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Aussie prisoners escape lock-in with Ubuntu PCs

The Alexander Maconochie jail in Canberra will this week deploy 30 more Ubuntu Linux-based computers for prisoner use after a successful first phase.

The Prison PC computers created by  Melbourne consultancy, Cybersource, were deployed in prisoner group areas such as the education centre and the library.

A computer will be assigned to each cell block wing for use by prisoners.

They will provide limited email and internet access to prisoners filtered using a centrally maintained white and blacklist, an Australian first, Cybersource said.

Prisoners may send emails to approved contacts only. Attempts to contact anyone not on the whitelist results in the message being quarantined for inspection by an administrator, Cybersource said.

Andreas Wullen, business and security systems manager for ACT Corrective Services, told iTnews the centre - from each building down to individual cells - had the infrastructure to run the Linux PCs.

But there are no plans to allow prisoners to have PCs in their cells yet.

"The issue of privilege is quite complex," Wullen said.

"You would have to be granted the highest of privilege to have a computer in your cell.

"What we will have is PCs in each wing for common use where prisoners can access controlled email or look at websites that have been approved for viewing."

The jail has an educational centre with training rooms for classes of 10 to 12 prisoners.

They have Prison PC desktops running images of about 120 KDE or GNOME applications. They are  Open Office, Firefox and some specialist but free education software.

"It runs on Ubuntu so we don't have to deal with operating system and software licenses. The software side of the system is completely free for us," Wullen said.

But look-and-feel of the user interface was still an important consideration, particularly because the centre provided skills to help prisoners find work on release.

"The interface we chose was designed to resemble Windows as closely as possible so when prisoners are released back into the community they are still familiar with where things are in the Microsoft [operating system]," Wullen said.

The very popular education offer led to this week's deployment.

"We're only at 25 percent capacity [of 300 potential inmates] but all the IT training courses have been applied for," Wullen said.

"The popularity justified the second phase. The infrastructure is already in place. It's just a financial decision that has to be made."

Cybersource product and services manager Ron Fabre praised the State Government.

"A huge thing [in the ACT] is to ensure prisoners are able to slowly reintegrate back into society," Fabre said.

"The ACT is remarkably forward-thinking in that regard because they are trying to rehabilitate prisoners rather than just punish them."

Read on to page two to see for the system architecture and what else is possible.

The Prison PC is an evolution of a safe internet computer developed by Cybersource four years ago.

The prison market became apparent after it was adapted for a project at the Metropolitan Remand Centre at Truganina, near Melbourne.

Prison PC is a centrally managed and distributed desktop environment. Desktops boot from a central server "but everything executes in local resources on the desktop", Fabre said.

Desktop PCs are assigned to ‘realms', such as the education centre or a cell block wing.

Each realm has a system image with the Ubuntu OS and necessary applications stored on a central server.

Images are loaded on PCs at boot and can't be modified by the prisoner. When the PC restarts, the system image is reloaded.

Desktops are kept in a custom, transparent case to allow components to cool without providing opportunities for prisoners to conceal contraband.

Searching a normal PC chassis takes up to four hours, Fabre said.

"Some prisons have to do this every month and employ people whose entire job is to review desktops," he said.

"Prison PC represents a huge cost reduction in this respect. They can review them by eye in seconds."

The first batch of Prison PC desktops were based on a VIA C7 processor, although Fabre said newer generations use Intel Atom 1.6 GHz chips.

There is no permanent data storage or drive in the chassis - prisoners are instead allocated partitioned storage on the central server.

The USB slots were designed to block thumb drives, USB modems or other devices from being operational if plugged in.

"Such items have been known to have been smuggled into or out of prisons, providing prisoners with a clandestine method of communication or access to non-approved media," Fabre said.

"Some prisons we know of have had problems with 3G modems being slingshot over a wall, plugged into a desktop and being used to contact victims."

Fabre said that Cybersource had "bites" from other Victorian prisons to roll out the system.

"We've also had discussions with 17 prisons in NSW, and nibbles from South Australia and New Zealand," he said.

The company has also fielded international interest in the product, including from Belgium.

Cybersource hopes the Prison PC could eventually provide a single, centrally-managed device to replace a PC, TV, DVD player and stereo in individual cells.

It is also hoped that prisons will elect to stream online radio, IP and free-to-air TV, on-demand video such as for education, and even minority religious content using the system in the future.

Fabre said a benefit of this all-in-one approach is that custodians could deny or revoke rights to use parts of the system, without having to go to the cell and forcibly remove the kit as punishment.

"Custodial staff don't have to visit the cell and put themselves in a potentially hostile situation," Fabre said.

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