AT THIS VERY MOMENT, there are about 12,000 people in the United States feeling extremely tied to their telephones. Most of these people know, in fact, that if they walk too far from that touch tone on the wall in the kitchen or that rotary in the front hall, an electronic signal will be silently tripped and the law will come knocking at their door. These 12,000 people — parolees, former prison inmates and convicted criminals waiting to be sentenced — are all under electronic house arrest.
Why use electronic ankle bracelets to keep prisoners in their homes? Because there’s no more room in the prisons. Between 1983 and 1988, the population within local jails increased fifty-four percent. The states’ prison population jumped ten percent in 1989, and in the federal prisons — where the number of inmates is approaching seventy percent over intended capacity — the population is expected almost to double by 1995.
Thanks in no small part to the Reagan-Bush war on drugs, everywhere there is incarceration, there is overcrowding. In fact, forty states are under court orders to reduce prison overcrowding. Marc Renzema, a professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University, has surveyed 435 federal, state and local government agencies around the country that are using electronic-monitoring devices. According to Renzema, law-enforcement officials are universal in their praise for electronic ankle bracelets. “Jails are overcrowded,” he says, “and this is the least bad thing they can do.”
The track record of these electronic deputies is also very convincing. “When I first got into the business, I was skeptical,” says Richard Brazil, assistant chief probation officer in California’s Humboldt County, “but it turns out to be very successful.” Brazil’s office screens prisoner candidates for the program, installs the system in about two hours and plugs the detainee into a central monitoring system at the Ohio offices of Guardian Technologies, the company that leases the county the bracelets. If the prisoner walks more than about 150 feet from his telephone, the computer in the phone senses it and an officer is called. Since August 1987, when Humboldt County’s program began, only two people have cut their bracelets off, but, Brazil says, “we caught them — we always catch them.”
The invention of the electronic home-monitoring (EHM) device is the rare case of life imitating comics. In 1979, a New Mexico judge noticed Kingpin, the stout underworld archenemy of Spiderman, had no trouble controlling the superhero with an electronic “BRACELET,” and the judge asked computer companies for something similar. Years later, a former Honeywell executive worked it all out, and in 1985, BI, in Boulder, Colorado, quickly bought him out. BI is still king of the monitoring-device community, with a more than sixty-percent market share, though Guardian Technologies and eleven other companies have joined the hunt.
“It’s a sad commentary,” says BI president David Hunter, “but crime has an astronomical growth rate. The numbers are all doubling, and we see it as a business opportunity well into the twenty-first century.” Nationally, the use of EHM devices doubled last year after tripling in each of the previous two years. The state of Michigan, for example, just bought 2600 units from BI and put in an order for about 3000 more. It pays to do so, Michigan officials figure, especially when the average cost of incarcerating a prisoner is said to be up to $20,000 a year. With home monitoring, on the other hand, most prisoners are able to work their regular jobs (monitors can distinguish between going to work and going on the lam) to help pay the price of their bracelets and their bills, instead of the state’s paying prison room and board.
In Philadelphia, the state parole board uses bracelets as well as an even less-expensive system of telephone monitoring. A computer memorizes the sound of the parolee’s voice enunciating the names of twenty-two different states and phones back at random hours to ask for a new combination of eight of those states. If the wrong voice answers the question, the parole board gets called.
“We’re very happy with them,” says Dan Solla, deputy director of the Pennsylvania parole board’s Special Intensive Drug Center, speaking of the phone system and bracelets. “We tried them ourselves, and when you’re in the shower and you hear the phone ring, you run like hell to answer that phone — and we weren’t even on parole!”
Lining up against the EHM solution are a few local chapters of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who oppose its use for drunken drivers because it isn’t mean enough. But the civil-rights groups the monitoring-device companies feared would be a problem have mostly rallied in support. Renzema says this is because any electronic intrusions on personal liberties are minor compared with the intrusions fostered by the conditions in prisons. At the moment, the biggest fear is that the product will prove too popular for its own good and technological standards will drop. “Every mom-and-pop criminal-justice company is getting into this,” says Dennis Oltorik, national sales manager of Guardian Technologies, “and even though Joe ex-criminal-defense attorney may have the connections to get his system in, the standards don’t live up to expectations.”
Slapping the ankles of celebrities like Imelda Marcos’s buddy Adnan Khashoggi and Kelsey Grammer, the Cheers shrink caught with cocaine, may increase home monitoring’s visibility, but it’s the less-well-known customers who might make the best endorsements. Gloria Pena, a thirty-two-year-old mother from the West Kensington section of Philadelphia, just finished sixty electronically monitored days. On parole after a voluntary-manslaughter conviction, Pena was threatened with a return to prison after authorities discovered she was using cocaine. Instead, she got a bracelet. Staying home meant she could cook for her son and three daughters — instead of the state’s making them dinner. “It kept me at home, where I’m supposed to be,” Pena says. And though she did feel a bit strange about the government’s watching her every move, she shudders at the alternative. “It’s better than being in jail,” she says.