Security September 2010

Prison Without Walls

Incarceration in America is a failure by almost any measure. But what if the prisons could be turned inside out, with convicts released into society under constant electronic surveillance? Radical though it may seem, early experiments suggest that such a science-fiction scenario might cut crime, reduce costs, and even prove more just.

One snowy night last winter, I walked into a pizzeria in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, with my right pant leg hiked up my shin. A pager-size black box was strapped to my sockless ankle, and another, somewhat larger unit dangled in a holster on my belt. Together, the two items make up a tracking device called the BI ExacuTrack AT: the former is designed to be tamper-resistant, and the latter broadcasts the wearer’s location to a monitoring company via GPS. The device is commonly associated with paroled sex offenders, who wear it so authorities can keep an eye on their movements. Thus my experiment: an online guide had specified that the restaurant I was visiting was a “family” joint. Would the moms and dads, confronted with my anklet, identify me as a possible predator and hustle their kids back out into the cold?

Well, no, not in this case. Not a soul took any notice of the gizmos I wore. The whole rig is surprisingly small and unobtrusive, and it allowed me to eat my slice in peace. Indeed, over the few days that I posed as a monitored man, the closest I came to feeling a real stigma was an encounter I had at a Holiday Inn ice machine, where a bearded trucker type gave me a wider berth than I might otherwise have expected. All in all, it didn’t seem like such a terrible fate.

Unlike most of ExacuTrack’s clientele, of course, I wore my device by choice and only briefly, to find out how it felt and how people reacted to it. By contrast, a real sex offender—or any of a variety of other lawbreakers, including killers, check bouncers, thieves, and drug users—might wear the unit or one like it for years, or even decades. He (and the offender is generally a “he”) would wear it all day and all night, into the shower and under the sheets—perhaps with an AC adapter cord snaking out into a wall socket for charging. The device would enable the monitoring company to follow his every move, from home to work to the store, and, in consultation with a parole or probation officer, to keep him away from kindergartens, playgrounds, Jonas Brothers concerts, and other places where kids congregate. Should he decide to snip off the anklet (the band is rubber, and would succumb easily to pruning shears), a severed cable would alert the company that he had tampered with the unit, and absent a very good excuse he would likely be sent back to prison. Little wonder that the law-enforcement officer who installed my ExacuTrack noted that he was doing me a favor by unboxing a fresh unit: over their lifetimes, many of the trackers become encrusted with the filth and dead skin of previous bearers, some of whom are infected with prison plagues such as herpes or hepatitis. Officers clean the units and replace the straps between users, but I strongly preferred not to have anything rubbing against my ankle that had spent years rubbing against someone else’s.

Increasingly, GPS devices such as the one I wore are looking like an appealing alternative to conventional incarceration, as it becomes ever clearer that, in the United States at least, traditional prison has become more or less synonymous with failed prison. By almost any metric, our practice of locking large numbers of people behind bars has proved at best ineffective and at worst a national disgrace. According to a recent Pew report, 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated—enough people to fill the city of Houston. Since 1983, the number of inmates has more than tripled and the total cost of corrections has jumped sixfold, from $10.4 billion to $68.7 billion. In California, the cost per inmate has kept pace with the cost of an Ivy League education, at just shy of $50,000 a year.

This might make some sense if crime rates had also tripled. But they haven’t: rather, even as crime has fallen, the sentences served by criminals have grown, thanks in large part to mandatory minimums and draconian three-strikes rules—politically popular measures that have shown little deterrent effect but have left the prison system overflowing with inmates. The vogue for incarceration might also make sense if the prisons repaid society’s investment by releasing reformed inmates who behaved better than before they were locked up. But that isn’t the case either: half of those released are back in prison within three years. Indeed, research by the economists Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago and M. Keith Chen of Yale indicates that the stated purpose of incarceration, which is to place prisoners under harsh conditions on the assumption that they will be “scared straight,” is actively counterproductive. Such conditions—and U.S. prisons are astonishingly harsh, with as many as 20 percent of male inmates facing sexual assault—typically harden criminals, making them more violent and predatory. Essentially, when we lock someone up today, we are agreeing to pay a large (and growing) sum of money merely to put off dealing with him until he is released in a few years, often as a greater menace to society than when he went in.

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers. The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

Moreover, such a change would in fact be less radical than it might at first appear. An underappreciated fact of our penitentiary system is that of all Americans “serving time” at any given moment, only a third are actually behind bars. The rest—some 5 million of them—are circulating among the free on conditional supervised release either as parolees, who are freed from prison before their sentences conclude, or as probationers, who walk free in lieu of jail time. These prisoners-on-the-outside have in fact outnumbered the incarcerated for decades. And recent innovations, both technological and procedural, could enable such programs to advance to a stage where they put the traditional model of incarceration to shame.

In a number of experimental cases, they already have. Devices such as the one I wore on my leg already allow tens of thousands of convicts to walk the streets relatively freely, impeded only by the knowledge that if they loiter by a schoolyard, say, or near the house of the ex-girlfriend they threatened, or on a street corner known for its crack trade, the law will come to find them. Compared with incarceration, the cost of such surveillance is minuscule—mere dollars per day—and monitoring has few of the hardening effects of time behind bars. Nor do all the innovations being developed depend on technology. Similar efforts to control criminals in the wild are under way in pilot programs that demand adherence to onerous parole guidelines, such as frequent, random drug testing, and that provide for immediate punishment if the parolees fail. The result is the same: convicts who might once have been in prison now walk among us unrecognized—like pod people, or Canadians.

There are, of course, many thousands of dangerous felons who can’t be trusted on the loose. But if we extended this form of enhanced, supervised release even to just the nonviolent offenders currently behind bars, we would empty half our prison beds in one swoop. Inevitably, some of those released would take the pruning-shears route. And some would offend again. But then, so too do those convicts released at the end of their brutal, hardening sentences under our current system. And even accepting a certain failure rate, by nearly any measure such “prisons without bars” would represent a giant step forward for justice, criminal rehabilitation, and society.

In the 18th century, the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a hypothetical prison. Inside the Panopticon (the name is derived from the Greek word for “all-seeing”), the prisoners are arranged in a ring of cells surrounding their guard, who is concealed in a tower in the center. The idea is that the guard controls the prisoners through his presumed observation: they constantly imagine his eyes on them, even when he’s looking elsewhere. Bentham promoted the concept of the Panopticon for much the same reasons that spur criminal-justice innovation today—a ballooning prison population and the need for a cheap solution with light manpower demands. Whereas the guard in Bentham’s day had only two eyes, however, today’s watcher can be virtually all-seeing, thanks to GPS monitoring technology. The modern prisoner, in other words, need not wonder whether he is being observed; he can be sure that he is, and at all times.

The hub of the American penal system’s largest open-air Panopticon is in the Indianapolis suburb of Anderson, population 57,496, at the call center of a company called BI Incorporated. The firm manufactures and services the ankle device I test-drove, as well as a suite of other law-enforcement gadgets designed to track offenders. Though BI has a handful of rivals in the monitoring business, it is the most prominent and best-known, with 55,000 offenders wearing BI anklets at any given moment. (The company monitors another 10,000 using lower-tech means: for instance, by having them call from particular landlines at designated times.)

I drove to Anderson from Indianapolis, past clapboard houses and cornfields, to visit BI’s offices, located on a few discreet and highly secure floors above the local branch of KeyBank. I was buzzed up to meet Jennifer White, the BI vice president in charge of monitoring. From her office window, we looked out not on the backs of the 30,000 offenders this branch monitors, but on the sedate midwestern bedroom community that is, by her description, “a little bit less happening than Muncie,” 20 miles away. Even the sleepy streets of Anderson have their secrets, though. White told me that below us were about 120 criminals with BI anklets—roughly one for every 500 residents in the town.

White, an Indiana native, has been at BI since 1988. Over a turkey salad from Bob Evans, she explained that the company’s first “clients” (as the monitored are always called) were not human beings but Holsteins. In 1978, BI began selling systems that allowed dairy farmers to dispense feed to their cows automatically. The company fitted a radio-frequency tag on each cow’s ear so that when the cow approached the feed dispenser, a sensor in the latter caused it to drop a ration of fodder. If the same cow returned, the sensor recognized the unique signal of the tag and prevented the cow from getting a second helping until after enough time had passed for her to digest the first. (The worlds of bovine and criminal management have in fact been oddly intertwined for many years. Just as modern abattoirs have studied the colors that can distract and agitate cows during their final moments—thus ruining their meat with adrenaline—prisons have painted their walls in soothing shades to minimize anxiety and aggression in their inmates.)

In the 1980s, BI expanded into “tethering people.” As an early mover in the outpatient prison industry, BI grew fast, and the Anderson office contains a one-room museum of the bulky devices from its early days, some the size of a ham-radio set. The company now counts tracking people as its core business, and as a sideline it facilitates their reentry into society, through treatment programs and counseling. BI monitors criminals in all 50 states, “everyone from people who owe child support to ax murderers,” White told me. Most use the lowest-tech tracking equipment, a radio-frequency-based technology that monitors house arrest. The system works simply: you keep a radio beacon in your home and a transmitter around your ankle. If you wander too far from your beacon, an alert goes out to the BI call center in Anderson, which then notifies your probation officer that you have left your designated zone—as Martha Stewart allegedly did during her BI-monitored house arrest in 2005, earning a three-week extension of her five-month sentence.

The truly revolutionary BI devices, though, are the new generation of GPS trackers, which monitor criminals’ real-time locations down to a few meters, enabling BI to control their movements almost as if they were marionettes. If you were a paroled drunk driver, for instance, your parole officer could mandate that you stay home every day from dusk until dawn, be at your workplace from nine to five, and go to and from work following a specific route—and BI would monitor your movements to ensure compliance. If your parole terms included not entering a bar or liquor shop, the device could be programmed to start an alert process if you lingered near such a location for more than 60 seconds. That alert could take the form of an immediate notice to the monitors—“He’s at Drinkie’s again”—or even a spoken warning emanating from the device itself, instructing you to leave the area or face the consequences. Another BI system, recently deployed with promising results, features an electrostatic pad that presses against the offender’s upper arm at all times, chemically “tasting” sweat for signs of alcohol. (In May, starlet Lindsay Lohan was ordered to wear a similar device, manufactured by a BI competitor, after violating her probation stemming from DUI charges.)

To see the BI systems at work is to realize that Jeremy Bentham was thinking small. The call center consists of just a few rows of desks, with a dozen or so men and women wearing headsets and speaking in Spanish and English to their “customers” (the law-enforcement agents, as distinguished from the tracked “clients”). Each sits in front of a computer monitor, and at the click of a mouse can summon up a screen detailing the movements of a client as far away as Guam, ensuring not only that he avoids “exclusion zones”—schoolyards or bars or former associates’ homes, depending on the circumstances—but also that he makes his way to designated “inclusion zones” at appointed times.

As a fail-safe against any technological glitch, whether accidental or malicious, BI is immensely proud of its backup systems, which boast an ultrasecure data room and extreme redundancy: if, say, a toxic-gas cloud were to wipe out the town of Anderson, the last act of the staff there would be to flip the switches diverting all call traffic to BI’s corporate office in Boulder, Colorado, where a team capable of taking over instantly in case of disaster is always on duty.

I asked Jamie Roberts, a call-center employee who had previously been a BI customer as a corrections officer in Terre Haute, Indiana, to show me a parolee on the move, and in seconds he pulled up the profile of a criminal in Newport News, Virginia. The young man’s parole officer had used a Microsoft Bing online map to build a large irregular polygon around his high school—an inclusion zone that would guarantee an alert if he failed to show up for class on time, every day. Roberts showed me one offender after another: names and maps, lives scheduled down to the minute. There was a gambler whose anklet was set to notify Roberts if the client approached the waterfront, because he might try his luck on the gaming boats; an addict who couldn’t return to the street corners where he used to score crack; and an alcohol abuser who had to squeeze himself into an inclusion zone around a church basement for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting from 9 to 10 p.m., three times a week.

A strict parole officer could plausibly sketch out a complete weekly routine for his parolee, with specific times when he would have to leave home and specific stations he would have to tag throughout the week. He might allow, or even require, the parolee to go to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon, and go for a jog along an authorized route every morning. Roberts pulled up another Bing map for me, and set in motion a faster-than-real-time playback of one client’s day. As his dot carefully skirted the exclusion zones around a school and a park, staying away from kids because of the absolute certainty that BI would report him if he did not, his life on the outside looked fully set out in advance, as if he moved not on his own feet but on rails laid by his parole officer. For BI clients, technology has made detection of any deviation a near certainty—and with detection a swift response, one that often leads straight back to the Big House.

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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