Incarcerated individuals have no privacy rights, being ever exposed to strip searches, body cavity searches, cell raids, or monitoring of all their, mail, telephone conversations and family and attorney visits. This makes prisons and jails an important market for new and ever more invasive tracking, surveillance and monitoring technologies, the same technologies that also invade all other spheres of our lives.
For example, the Arizona-based Alanco Technologies has installed an RFID (radio frequency identification) system in the Los Angeles County Jail allowing guards to track prisoners’ locations inside the facilities, and to count prisoners using bar codes on wrist bracelets. Two subsidiaries of 3M Company have provided the technology to track more than 4,200 inmates and staff in 13 facilities in 7 states. An Inmate Tracking System provided by 3M offers real-time, automatic headcounts; inmate tracking; security alerts; real-time event and escape notification. Behavioral Interventions (BI Inc., a subsidiary of Geo Group) has a contract with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for the electronic monitoring of thousands of immigrants waiting for hearings in asylum and deportation cases using ankle bracelets. Hewlett-Packard has been contracted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to provide and maintain a Strategic Offender Management System for all prisoners in the State of California.
The surveillance and monitoring equipment industry is a rapidly-expanding profitable industry. In its 2009 report, “One in 31: The Long Reach of Community Corrections,” the Pew Center for the States has estimated that 7.3 million people in the U.S. are under some form of criminal justice supervision. Most of this market is focused on electronic monitoring as an “alternative” to or extension of incarceration -- monitoring people pre-trial as a condition of release on bail, instead of incarceration, or post-incarceration as a condition of supervised release, parole, or probation. SuperCom, an Israeli-based smart ID and electronic monitor producer, estimates that electronic monitoring of “offenders” will be a $6 billion market by 2018.
Beyond pinpointing a person’s location, electronic monitoring can be used to detect alcohol and drug use. Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc. (AMS) manufactures SCRAM -- the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor -- which is worn on ankle or wrist and detects alcohol excretion from the skin by sampling the user’s sweat and measuring his or her blood alcohol level. As of 2013, SCRAM systems were being used in 49 states. In 2012, AMS partnered with Omnilink, a subsidiary of Numerex, to expand its alcohol monitoring functions to include GPS location services, so multiple monitoring functions could be provided by one device.
One reason electronic monitoring has been adopted so widely by criminal justice agencies is its cost: these systems are generally “offender funded,” so people wearing the monitors pay much of the expenses. A recent national survey by National Public Radio noted that every state except Hawaii imposes fees ranging from $5 to $25 per day for monitoring -- from $1825 to $9125 per year. These costs fall on people who are generally low-income already, who may have lost or have difficulty finding employment because of arrest or incarceration. Yet laws allow for these people to be sent to prison if they can’t pay for their monitors, even if they were judged low-risk and sentenced to community supervision.
Electronic monitoring violates the rights of the monitored people. Unlike people in prison, who have constitutional rights to time outside, to access legal materials, to medical care and adequate diet, most people on a monitor must apply for permission for any move they make, and permission must be programmed into their device. Permission for movement is not granted easily -- one man interviewed by Truthout said, “There was literally a period of three straight months that I never left the house because of the hassle and bullshit of attempting even to get movement.” If permission is denied, there are no channels for appeal. For example, in northwestern Ohio, the sole days of the year when a monitored person may attend family gatherings are Christmas and Thanksgiving, for a maximum of 2 hours. People have complained of being unable to get permission to attend funerals, go to job interviews, or visit a parent in the hospital. People convicted of sex offenses are subjected to lifetime electronic monitoring in 11 states, as going on the online sex offender registry now established federally and in every state.
People on electronic monitoring are also subject to direct supervision by parole and probation officers, as well as halfway house staff. Many formerly-incarcerated people will be under the supervision of private probation companies. Probation and parole violations may result in flash incarceration (immediate imprisonment without court hearing) or a return to prison or jail to finish out a sentence. These types of disruption seriously impede peoples’ efforts to keep a job, pay their bills, and reunite their families.
Additionally, people on post-release supervision face the threat of being returned to prison or jail because they cannot pay fees associated with their own monitoring. These fees create economic hardship for families, and in effect create debtors’ prisons. In at least 44 states, people on supervision may be billed for their own parole or probation supervision. Regular drug testing may also be a condition of parole or probation at an average cost of $25 per test, to be paid by the person being supervised, which may total $1,250 for a year of testing -- often in addition to electronic monitoring fees.
The costs of supervision mount up, and some states charge interest on fees not paid. In 2014 in Washington State, 12% interest is charged on costs in felony cases, accruing from the moment of judgment until all fines, fees, restitution, and interest are paid off in full. A state commission found that the average amount of fees in a felony case adds up to $2,500. If a person has unpaid court debt, he or she is not eligible for many government benefits, cannot apply for expungement of prior misdemeanors, and cannot receive or renew a driver’s license. So chances for success in re-entering the community after prison decrease dramatically, and the possibility of re-incarceration because of inability to pay increases.
On any typical day in Benton County, Washington, over 25% of the people sentenced to jail through misdemeanor court were imprisoned because they couldn’t afford to pay court fees and fines. Fees and fines provide massive amounts of money to states and municipalities. In 2004, the last time the Justice Department collected this data, a survey of prison inmates revealed that 66% owed court-imposed costs, restitution, fines, and fees.
In May of 2014, the Governor of Colorado signed House Bill 1061, a law to prevent the incarceration people simply because they are too poor to pay assessed fees and fines. In 2015, national media has drawn attention to the practice of arresting and jailing people for minor traffic violations specifically in order to collect fines and court fees. ArchCity Defenders, the public defenders’ organization in St. Louis County, Missouri, issued a white paper finding that “by disproportionately stopping, charging, and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution.”