E-carceration is an alternative system of incarceration that deprives individuals of liberty through tracking, surveillance, and control outside of prisons by technological means. This section focuses on the companies that develop and manage electronic monitoring (EM) technologies that are used to monitor individuals in pre-trial, probation, parole, or immigrant deportation proceedings. Although these technologies are often characterized as alternatives to incarceration, in reality, they serve as alternative forms of incarceration. Our research on surveillance technologies used within prisons to monitor and control incarcerated populations can be found here.
The main companies involved in this sector are:
BI (Behavioral Interventions) Inc, a subsidiary of The GEO Group Inc (NYSE: GEO)
Leaders in Community Alternatives, a subsidiary of SuperCom Ltd (NASDAQ: SPCB)
Omnilink, a subsidiary of Sierra Wireless Inc (NASDAQ: NMRS)
Rocky Mountain Offender Management Systems, a subsidiary of CoreCivic Inc (NYSE: CXW)
TrackGroup Inc. (previously SecureAlert) (OTC: TRCK)
Attenti, owned by Apax Partners of London, UK (Private Equity)
Corrisoft Inc., of Lexington, KY (Private)
CSRA Probation Services Inc., of Evans, Georgia (Private)
Libre by Nexus, a subsidiary of Nexus Services, of Harrisonburg, VA (Private)
Satellite Tracking of People LLC, a subsidiary of Securus Technologies Inc., owned by Platinum Equity of Beverly Hills, CA (Private Equity)
SCRAM Systems (previously Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc.) of Littleton, CO (Private)
Sentinel Offender Services, of Irvine, CA (Private)
In the context of changing public perceptions towards mass incarceration in the U.S. and the search for alternatives, electronic monitoring (EM) technologies have been championed by some as a more humane and efficient alternative. This political climate has produced a rapidly expanding and lucrative industry, growing over 150% between 2005 and 2015 and surpassing an estimated value of $6 billion dollars in 2018. Private prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group have taken notice and for years now have been repositioning themselves as providers of re-entry “services,” among them electronic monitoring technologies. Since 2005, CoreCivic and GEO Group have together spent $2.2 billion dollars acquiring smaller companies involved in electronic monitoring and other re-entry services. Identifying the market potential of e-carceration, these companies envision the implementation of EM technologies not only as an alternative to prison. But with the support of lawmakers, these companies have widened the net of EM technologies to include the nearly five million individuals in the U.S. who are on parole or probation, in juvenile detention, immigrants in deportation proceedings, and even individuals who have yet to be convicted of a crime in lieu of pre-trial imprisonment. As Michelle Alexander articulated, “Even if old-fashioned prisons fade away, the profit margins of these companies will widen so long as growing numbers of people find themselves subject to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring, and control.”
In addition to increasing the number of people subject to privatized supervision, many of these companies have adopted “user-funded” models that charge individuals daily fees for their own deprivation of liberty on top of installation, removal and replacement fees. According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, EM companies are incentivized to raise “user” fees in order to maximize their profits. As Johnny Page, a directly impacted individual from Illinois stated, “It’s like being locked up but you’re paying your own bills”. Replicating private prison business models, companies involved in e-carceration are financially dependent on the growth of supervised populations and incentivized to keep people under some form of supervision for as long as possible. While many critics of the criminal punishment industry (e.g., the ACLU and NAACP) agree that EM technologies are preferable to prisons, they are calling attention to the legislative trend that employs EM technologies in addition to prisons. The rise of EM technologies controlled by private companies does not represent an alternative to incarceration. If anything, e-carceration represents the further privatization of incarceration, requiring people to pay for their own monitoring and surveillance as well as their basic necessities like housing, medical care, and food.
Electronic Monitoring Technologies
Deprivation of Liberty
As mentioned above, while electronic monitoring (EM) is often framed and articulated as an alternative to incarceration, EM technologies are in reality an extension of incarceration, as they control and violate an individual’s rights to movement, privacy, and liberty as severely as prisons do.
For most people on electronic monitoring (EM), the default site of detention is house arrest. Much like a prison cell, a person cannot leave their home even for simple tasks like laundry or grocery shopping without the permission of a “supervising authority,” e.g. their parole officer. However, unlike prison cells, individuals subject to house arrest via EM have fewer, if any, legal rights to food or outdoor exercise. Furthermore, many “supervising authorities” have the power to impose lockdowns - confining the person to their residence 24 hours a day for any period of time without judicial process or channels for appeal. Leaving one’s residence even for emergencies leads to situations like those of directly impacted individuals James Morgan and Kent Schultz. In both cases, they were arrested and sent back to prison for leaving their residence to rush to the emergency room for a profusely bleeding wound and escape a fire in their apartment complex, respectively.
With little to sometimes no regulation under this system of e-carceration, individuals are, “at the whim of their [monitoring] agent” and can be subject to warrantless searches and detentions. In 2014, one directly impacted individual interviewed by Truthout explained that “There was literally a period of three straight months that I never left the house,” due to the difficulty of getting permission from their “supervising” authority. Even individuals whose “supervising” authority allows them to seek work, education, or treatment, find that their movement and daily choices are entirely controlled. As EM devices are battery powered, they must be recharged multiple times a day for an average of five hours via wall plug. This greatly limits the individuals’ freedom of movement and their ability to maintain full-time jobs that may have multiple worksites like construction, landscaping, cleaning, delivery, etc. If an individual’s EM device happens to run out of charge or the GPS signal is lost (both common occurrences), they can be forced into confrontational situations with law enforcement who are alerted to track them down. This can put both their loved ones and their own life at risk. In fact, the reliability of EM devices has been repeatedly called into question. A 2012 study of EM devices in Tennessee showed that 82% of EM alarms that notified law enforcement were due to technical errors on the part of the device.
Attenti, formerly owned by 3M, is one of the largest companies involved in the EM industry, bringing in globally an annual $95 million in sales. The company has held contracts with over ten states including California, Ohio, Washington, and Oklahoma. Attenti’s technology has led to many technical failures, inaccuracies, and false reports. In 2011, California decided to cancel its contract with Attenti over repeated inaccuracies and failures in their technology. In October 2017, 3M sold Attenti to private equity firm Apax Partners for $200 million.
EM devices can also create health risks to individuals through limiting their access to healthcare and the direct physical effects of attaching devices. Directly impacted individuals have stated that they faced leg swelling and severe cramps when the EM device was first attached to them described as a period of “physical adjustment”. Additionally many medical procedures such as MRIs, mammograms, x-rays, and CT scans, cannot be done while a person has a monitor. California requires individuals with monitors to wear “the activated device... to the medical procedure”, while many other states have no guidelines leaving the decision again to the monitoring authority’s discretion. Removing the device to attend a medical procedure is also not an option as tampering with EM devices can carry a sentence up to five years in prison.
In addition to deeply violating the privacy and personal lives of individuals directly impacted by e-carceration in the present, EM technologies also hold grave implications for the future of state surveillance and public privacy. As the technological capacity of devices increases, so does the “possibility of more comprehensive restriction” within cities, neighborhoods and public spaces. Researchers like James Kilgore have noted how this potential is already in action with the creation of areas of restricted access for individuals on EM technology called exclusion zones. The combination of exclusion zones with racial disparities and biases towards people of Color already present in the system of e-carceration could segregate people according to demographic, criminal background, or citizenship status. In fact, cities like Seattle and New York City already have created exclusion zones for individuals on EM devices.
Further questions are raised over who owns and controls the massive amount of location-tracking data that are compiled by EM devices. Multiple private companies in the United States such as Attenti and Satellite Tracking of People (STOP) store individual’s GPS movements for a “minimum” of seven years after the device is removed from the individual. GPS data not only reveals incredibly private information about the individual on the device, but also the habits and movements of family and others who interact with the directly impacted person. This is particularly worrying as STOP’s parent company Securus faced a massive hack in 2015 where 70 million private phone calls and records were leaked online. Operating in 2,200 prisons and jails across the country, Securus is most prominently known as one of the largest prison telephone operators in the nation. However, like GEO Group and CoreCivic, Securus has been diversifying and in 2013 purchased electronic monitoring giant Satellite Tracking of People (STOP). As of October 2018, STOP held contracts with thirteen state departments of corrections including California, Missouri, and Tennessee. Securus’ rapid growth has seen it change ownership three times between 2011 and 2017 and it was most recently purchased for $1.5 billion in 2017 by Beverly Hills-based private equity firm Platinum Equity. Platinum Equity is owned by billionaire Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores.
Shifting the Cost to Monitored Communities
Alongside the claim of efficiency, e-carceration is commonly touted as a cheaper alternative to prisons and jails. While e-carceration may be less expensive for state and local agencies, it is only because the vendor, operating, and equipment costs of EM devices are shifted to the incarcerated individual. “User-funded” fees commonly range between $5 to $25 per day but can be as expensive as $40 per day. While shifting costs onto individuals might be a quick fix for cash strapped state agencies, the impact of “user-funded” costs on individuals, who are overwhelmingly low-income and people of Color, can be life devastating.
For example, in 2018, Leaders in Community Alternatives (LCA), an electronic monitoring subsidiary of SuperCom Ltd, was sued in a class-action lawsuit for extortion. The private company was accused of deceiving and misleading individuals into paying incredibly high daily rates by threatening them with reincarceration if they failed to pay. Robert Jackson who was directly impacted by LCA’s predatory practices testified that after his wife suddenly passed away, he was forced to sell his car, give up his apartment, separate from his kids, and became homeless in order to afford LCA’s fees. Another individual William Edwards who was battling life-threatening cancer during his incarceration had to choose between affording his medication and paying LCA’s fees. LCA is not alone in penalizing poor individuals who are being monitored.
Another example is Sentinel Offender Services, a major private EM company that in 2017 recorded over $100 million in annual revenue. As of October 2018, Sentinel held contracts in Connecticut, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and Washington. Sentinel has been sued over fifteen times in federal courts in California, Florida, and Georgia for collecting “user fees” on expired or non-existent contracts. Prior to 2017, Sentinel was the largest EM company in the state of Georgia and oversaw all EM activities for the Atlanta Municipal Court from 2006 to 2017. Georgia has the largest parole population in the United States. According to Sarah Geraghty, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, “Georgia leads the nation in the number of people on probation because of Georgia’s booming private probation industry….These companies have a profit motive to have as many people on probation as possible for as long as possible. It’s as simple as that.” In February 2017, Sentinel settled a class action lawsuit for more than $2 million dollars after threatening individuals with re-imprisonment because they could not pay arbitrary “user fees” charged by the company. In the same month, the company decided to sell all of its contracts in the state to CSRA Probation Services.
The Electronic Monitoring of Immigrants and Asylum Seekers
In addition to having the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States is also estimated to detain more immigrants than any other country in the world. With the average daily population of immigrant detainees increasing over 200% between 2005 and 2018, e-carceration companies have adapted to profit from the mass detention of migrants. Since the 1990s, the U.S. government has run an “Alternatives to Detention” Program intended to reduce the cost of detaining refugees and migrants during their asylum or deportation proceedings. In 2004, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expanded the program with the launch of the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) and contracted Behavioral Interventions Incorporated (BI) to be its exclusive EM technology provider. Founded in 1978 to monitor cattle and livestock, BI Incorporated still holds the exclusive contract for ISAP, which was renewed in 2009 and most recently in August 2014 for an additional five years. From 2004 to 2018, BI Incorporated received over half a billion dollars from ICE to oversee ISAP. The company monitored over 84,000 people in 2017 alone.
In 2011, private prison company GEO Group purchased BI Incorporated for $415 million dollars. With this acquisition, GEO Group, who is also the largest operator of ICE detention facilities in the U.S. and the second largest private prison company in the U.S., has “ensured that whether ICE is expanding detention or expanding alternative forms of detention, they're getting paid”. While the “Alternatives to Detention Program” is designed to focus on people with serious criminal histories or pose a threat to public safety, 89 percent of individuals in ISAP are not considered “dangerous or violent” by ICE’s own criteria. In 2015, immigration attorneys from Texas filed a formal complaint to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, documenting how asylum seekers were deliberately misled and/or coerced into agreeing to wear ankle bracelets in order to be released from detention. The complaints included charges that personnel threatened to withhold medical care for their children if they chose to seek bond hearings instead of agreeing to wear the ankle monitors.
In addition to companies that contract with government entities to provide electronic monitoring services, other companies like Libre by Nexus (LBN) are utilizing EM to broker bonds for immigrants in detention centers. Founded during a surge of Central American refugees detained by ICE in 2013, Libre by Nexus targets detained individuals directly and offers to secure their bonds via a certified bail-bond company in exchange for the detainee “renting” a GPS ankle monitor for $420 per month. Instead of requiring the detainee to post collateral such as a house, cash, or other assets, Libre by Nexus installs a GPS device onto the detainee to monitor their movement 24/7. Compared to immigrant bonds that regularly range in the tens of thousands and are required by ICE to be paid in full, Libre by Nexus’ monthly fees offer an alternative to often desperate people and their families. However, on top of the monthly fee, detained asylum seekers or immigrants must pay a series of non-refundable installation, processing, and security deposit fees that can add up to $4,000 dollars. None of these fees or monthly rental costs are directed to paying off the bond. If an individual fails to pay the monthly fee or “breaks the contract” in other ways, Libre by Nexus will prompt “licensed recovery agents,” i.e. bounty hunters, to return them to detention. As of April 2018, Libre by Nexus has faced a federal probe, three state investigations, and a number of allegations and lawsuits by immigrants claiming the company misled and deceived them.
The Electronic Monitoring of Youth
One of the largest expanding markets for EM devices has been youth in the juvenile punishment system. Although there is limited research on the electronic monitoring of youth nationwide, we know that every state, excluding New Hampshire, employ EM technology on youth and that reports show they are overwhelmingly and disproportionately youth of Color. In one of the most comprehensive reports on the electronic monitoring of youth in the state of California, it details severely regressive and restrictive requirements for youth on EM devices. Although collecting “user-fees” on youth is banned in California (unlike other states), there is a substantial lack of privacy protections. For example in Contra Costa County, youth are subject to search and seizure anywhere and at any time, banned from leaving their house apart from attending school and can violate the terms for failing to charge the device correctly.
In January 2019, Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago, awarded a three year contract to the electronic monitoring company TrackGroup to monitor and surveil over 275 children in pre-trial. The TrackGroup ankle monitoring devices not only track GPS movement, but can also record the monitored youth. The ReliAlert XC3 device developed by TrackGroup allows TrackGroup employees and the criminal court to call an individual at any time for two-way communication. The monitored youth cannot decline an incoming call and TrackGroup (formerly SecureAlert) employees have testified in court that the device listening capabilities can be activated without warning. Even if the company informed children of their recording, questions of legality and consent remain unanswered. Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice said, “The idea that an adult can turn on a listening device while a child is, say, in the bathroom or in their bedroom is not good.” The city’s previous devices, provided by electronic monitoring company Sentinel, did not have listening or recording capabilities.
Corrisoft Incorporated, a Kentucky based private EM company has specific programs and contracts to monitor youth across the nation. In 2015, Corrisoft was contracted by the Manhattan District Attorney to monitor youth previously imprisoned in the notorious Rikers’ Island prison. In 2013, Corrisoft purchased iSECUREtrac LLC, an electronic monitoring company that a year prior had been contracted by a predominately Black and Latinx Dallas school district to monitor youth with truancy violations.