Looking to implement an inmate identification solution? Are you considering upgrading to an electronic wristband or ID card?

Here are some important tips from corrections experts throughout the U.S.

Wristbands or ID Cards?

Generally speaking, pre-trial facilities deploy wristbands more often than ID cards because of shorter incarceration periods. Wristbands offer cost-effective, short-term use and support a variety of color choices for visual classification purposes.

ID cards are more commonly used on sentenced inmates because they can hold up longer (assuming no intentional abuse) than wristbands. ID cards can be printed to include basic demographic information as well as colors to also gain visual classification efficiency.

Wristbands can be prone to intentional inmate abuse, a well as moisture introduction. (We discuss how to effectively prevent these issues below.) ID cards are often an inmate’s passport for everything from movements to meal offerings. However, while the common fear amongst those considering ID cards is transferability between inmates, the more common problem is forgetfulness. “Inmates will frequently leave their ID card in their cell by accident, which slows down group movements and meal passes because they have to run back to their cell to grab their card,” says Officer Andrew Smith.

RFID or Barcode/QR Code?

According to RFID Journal, RFID (radio frequency identification) offers faster scanning speeds — as much as 20x faster (also referred to as “reads”). This is because RFID is proximity-based, meaning that an RFID tag and an RFID reader are contactless, never requiring line of sight scanning the way barcoding and QR codes do. (See article: How RFID works in Corrections.) In this sense, RFID also offers ease of use over barcodes -- especially for corrections professionals using RFID to log group movements, meal offerings, recreation, etc.

Barcodes and QR codes are forms of auto-identification that cost virtually nothing to create. However, the tradeoffs for corrections leaders are large — especially when data integrity is mission-critical. This is because of how easy barcodes and QR codes are to physically destroy, replicate, and falsify. You can photocopy QR codes, take pictures of QR codes with a smartphone, or even more easily -- just Google search QR code generators and make your own. That means anyone on your staff can, too.

Handheld scanners, fixed scanners or possibly both?

The form of auto-identification you choose -- regardless of form factor (wristband or ID card) will have an important impact on the level of automation you achieve now and long-term. Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to log recreation offerings to a pod full of inmates. Some go, some don’t. This type of log entry can be captured quickly using an RFID handheld scanner, such as Spartan. Then, maybe you want to log what time inmates actually entered recreation -- assuming that your recreation yard is separate from the pod. A fixed RFID reader can automate data collection at the point of entry to capture time, identity, and location.

If you choose barcodes/QR codes for auto-identification, a staff member will need to hand scan each inmate entering recreation -- at the point of entry -- because barcoding requires line of sight scanning. Since RFID is proximity based, there is faster, less manual effort required by staff to automate specific types of data collection.

Also, consider locations in which you may need to verify staff and inmate presence, such as inmate worker areas (kitchen, laundry, etc.) While these areas commonly have a staff member, it can be more efficient for staff to have inmates walk past a fixed RFID reader to capture presence data than to hand scan each inmate. (That’s not to say that hand scanning each inmate is an ineffective practice -- but there are times where a fixed reader may be preferred over hand scanning individual inmates.)

Maximize your inmate identification success with these tips.

  1. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for inmate non-Compliance. Create and communicate any policy changes that reflect your inmate identification initiatives. This should include swift, severe consequences for first-time offenses so that there’s no second offense (and hopefully, very few first-time offenses.) Don’t just fine the inmate the replacement cost of their wristband or ID card. Adopt a replacement cost (factoring in labor costs for staff to make the replacement ID) plus 24-hour lockdown, loss of commissary, or other privileges that will make all inmates strongly consider their decisions to deliberately not comply. Some facilities, such as the Lincoln Co. Jail in North Platte, Nebraska, partnered with their County Attorney to add additional criminal charges to any inmate found tampering or destroying their RFID wristband.

  2. Ensure staff are fastening wristbands securely at all times. If inmates had better coping skills, they wouldn’t be in jail. When they complain about a wristband being too tight, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want to wear it. They forfeited this right when they were arrested. A wristband should never be able to slide off. If it can be, that’s often a staff issue.

  3. Delaminating wristbands — especially those with premature moisture introduction — are often the result of the heating laminator set to a temperature that’s too low. The Goldilocks temperature is between 325 and 330 degrees. Ensure that your laminator’s temperature setting is correct.
    If your facility has its laminator on most of the day in booking (even if it’s not being used) the heating element of the laminator can wear out and not reach the appropriate melting temperature. This can cause the wristband to delaminate prematurely.

  4. If you’ve chosen wristbands, you may need to contemplate the type of fastener to choose (metal or plastic.) Both can be extremely effective. However, some facilities find better success with one type of fastener over the other. You can rapidly interchange between fastener types.
    We do recommend that in most cases, all inmates should receive the same type of fastener. We advise against mixing fastener types. Some inmates may perceive other inmates using a different type of fastener as an unusual badge of honor -- a rebel without a cause. Execute a homogenous fastener strategy.

  5. If you’ve chosen ID cards, consider a plastic clip and adopting a policy that inmates wear their ID cards at all times. This will cut down on forgetfulness, loss, and potential theft.


Your inmate identification strategy should take into account your facility’s immediate and long-term needs.

Here are the essential considerations:

  • Form factor (wristband or ID card)
  • Type of auto-identification (RFID vs barcode/QR code)
  • Method of data collection (mobile scanners, fixed scanners, or possibly both)
  • Policy and procedure changes that need to be created and communicated to maximize compliance

By contemplating the above, you’ll be able to create an effective, successful inmate identification initiative for your facility.