Enforcement of public safety and order is sometimes less about eradicating crime than it is about shuffling those deemed a risk out of certain spaces and into others

In urban planning, there’s a strategy known as “hostile” or “defensive” architecture, such as the metal spikes built into public ledges to keep people (particularly those who are homeless) from sitting on them. Similarly, a 2013 article in the New York Times described what it called “pocket parks.” After becoming alarmed at the presence of men walking around with GPS monitors around their ankles, residents and city officials of a Los Angeles neighborhood found that the easiest way to drive away sex offenders was to build tiny playgrounds — or rather, plots of land with often no more than a swing set — just enough to invoke a state law that forbids registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park.

Drawing by Alexandra Mateescu
Drawing by Alexandra Mateescu

Unlike the slim design of fitness wearables, most ankle monitors are bulky, ugly, and difficult to conceal. From their adoption in the 1980s, their exact purpose within criminal justice — whether they were foremost an instrument of punishment, public safety, or social rehabilitation — was never really defined. On the other hand, some proponents touted the devices’ ability to punitively stigmatize their wearers.

GPS signals conspire with social signals to keep a class of people far away and out of sight.

As GPS-tracked offenders are mapped as data points on a screen, the difficult dynamics felt on the ground are obscured. While the clean view of a satellite image may be useful to the probation officer overwhelmed with a large caseload, it can make for an intensely dysfunctional “user experience” for people for whom the word “user,” with all the obligations of service that go with it, is rarely applied. As James Kilgore points out in an extensive report on the subject, there are few clear legal rights to protect the monitored, leaving them largely under the discretion of probation and parole officers, and whatever the technology itself permits.

Electronic monitoring came into the criminal justice system not as a result of extensive research, but in part because a district judge in Albuquerque avidly pursued the idea in the 1970s. Judge Jack Love had read about the use of location tracking for livestock, and was further inspired by a Spiderman comic strip in which Kingpin forcibly slaps an “electronic radar device” onto Spiderman’s wrist so he can keep an eye on him. Motivated by a desire to keep people out of the brutal New Mexico prisons, Love convinced a computer salesman to design a similar device, and in 1983, a probation violator was the first to be fitted with one.

As reducing mass incarceration and finding (less costly) alternatives is becoming a greater political priority, programs that are often paired with electronic monitoring, like home detention and non-custodial forms of supervision, are typically expanded. States like California, for example, have done this to address prison overcrowding. Today, the number of people under electronic monitoring is actually quite small (about 200,000 at any given time) compared to the overall population under the umbrella of non-custodial or “community” corrections, like probation or parole (nearly 5 million in 2013).

But as this increasingly becomes what the prevailing “alternative” looks like, we may need to contend with what it means to have a sizable segment of the population fenced in by invisible walls, governed remotely through continuous surveillance, and where homes are refashioned into cells.

Widening the net

Today, one of the central policy questions about electronic monitoring is whether it helps reduce the very high recidivism rates of US prisons. The answer, however, is unclear given that the research is sparse and difficult to generalize (for one, both the types of offenders and degrees of restrictions can vary widely, from merely enforcing curfews to 24-hour house arrest).

There are other consequences that matter from a systemic standpoint, even if recidivism rates are the measure of success from a policy perspective. Take the earlier example of “pocket parks,” which hints at a wider dysfunction at work. Numerous residency restrictions around sites like schools or parks keep away sex offenders from residential neighborhoods, leading to cases where these individuals become homeless or live out of cars because they can’t find housing. As long as they are not rearrested, though, the system has done its job. For whom is this a success? In the same way, a technology like electronic monitoring may, with one hand, meet the goals of relieving the costly and bloated prison system, and with the other, help create a new punitive landscape. This should be a serious question to ask of any technology that is claiming to resolve (often at lower cost) the problems of the criminal justice system.

Another question is: does placing people on electronic monitoring offer a more humane alternative to incarceration? The answer is yes, but the question is likely the wrong one. Most empirical studies and testimonies from offenders have shown that being around family and community, and having the opportunity to work (except in cases of home detention), is better than being locked up in a cell.

However, this tells us very little. From the start, the bar is set rather low for what constitutes something better than incarceration, making it a poor measuring stick. And worse, the use of electronic monitoring is in some cases becoming less about diverting people from brick-and-mortar confinement than it is about surveilling those who would have otherwise received even lighter sanctions.

Electronic monitoring is assigned to all kinds of law-breakers, from violent to low-level to sex offenders. But people are also being fitted with ankle monitors as a condition of bail after minor offenses like traffic violations. Vendors like Omnilink are touting ankle monitors as a solution to juvenile truancy, claiming to prevent not only absenteeism, but also the “adult criminality” and “reduced earning power” foreseen in these noncompliant kids’ futures. This reasoning (and its reality) should be alarming given the already significant presence of police and the juvenile justice system in public schools, particularly for low-income students of color. And the young age of some students is another factor: in December 2015, Dallas police arrested a 12-year-old Sikh boy for a mistaken bomb threat at a school. After three days in jail, the child was placed on an ankle monitor under house arrest until his court date. Ankle monitors have also come into use by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep track of immigrants released from detention while awaiting court hearings.

As the electronic monitoring net widens, the people caught inside will be among the most disadvantaged, tracing paths along already existing racial and economic inequalities.

As this happens, “offender-funded” programs are being instituted that require people to rent electronic monitoring equipment. A Human Rights Watch report found that probation companies typically charge between $180 to $360 per month, as well as other additional fees. Among those expanding into this market are private prison operators like GEO Group, which has acquired BI Incorporated, a major electronic monitoring vendor. With electronic monitoring, the costs of the criminal justice system are effectively being offloaded onto individuals.

Walking the box

Aside from the established sanctions imposed on their wearers, ankle monitors can introduce instability and chaos into the lives of the monitored when things go wrong. Often, the devices lose signal, particularly in urban spaces. In an extreme case, a Wisconsin parolee was arrested at least 12 times and spent 74 days in jail over the course of a year as a result of repeated GPS signal failure. In one study, offenders on electronic monitoring reported how they would be interrupted from their jobs because their devices kept sounding an alarm when the satellite signal was lost. The only solution was to get up and “walk the box” around the block until it picked up a signal again. And when the devices reach low battery, their wearers may find themselves racing homeward to replug into an outlet or face the prospect of the police knocking at their door.

But even when electronic monitoring works the way it’s supposed to, it may not be the stepping stone to rehabilitation that is touted in the marketing rhetoric: a move “from punishment to partnership,” as Corrisoft, an electronic monitoring vendor, puts it. Last year, there was public outcry when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police announced that it was considering designating areas of the city where there was an uptick in crime as temporary “public safety zones” that would be off-limits to people who have been arrested. But for some, public space is already a minefield carved out through technologically-enforced exclusion zones, scheduled itineraries, and curfews.

The report by James Kilgore highlights the arbitrary authority enforced through GPS tracking. Examples cited include: barring people from entering certain stores, requiring permission to go to a laundromat or the laundry room within one’s own apartment complex, and even being required to provide detailed itineraries of all movements outside of the home two weeks in advance. Specific individuals can also be restricted from being in proximity of each other — a plausibly reasonable sanction in cases where violent offenders can be restricted from going to a victim’s home, but not so much when a person is barred from visiting their own cousin or sibling if they too have a criminal record. The ambition to move people like chess pieces cannot keep up with the messiness of navigating the day-to-day world and the fluidity of social networks that cannot easily be mapped onto that world through fixed geographies.

But whether the current dysfunctions of electronic monitoring are by design or not also raises another question: as these tools become more advanced, what happens when they become too good at their job? According to Harvard sociologist Devah Pager, contemporary probation and parole practices are preoccupied with identifying and penalizing technical violations such as missed curfew and other “nuisance-type” behaviors, often on a zero-tolerance basis. What this means is that people often end up behind bars again, not because they have committed new crimes, but because they violated the terms of their probation or parole. The ambition to detect every bit of petty rule-breaking by the monitored starts to look like something other than public safety, rehabilitation, or crime prevention.

In addition, the introduction of risk assessment software and the potential to track and analyze patterns of movement can turn people into quasi-permanent suspects, every waking move a criminogenic one, when these patterns become data points to cross-reference with crime databases. Any “suspicious” interaction, whether innocuous or not, can be interpreted as potential criminal conspiring, or interpreted through the lens of labels like “gang activity monitoring” that implicate others by association with those wearing a monitor. Is something illicit happening when two people on monitors go into the same corner store at the same time, or are they both there independently to pick up a bag of potato chips? What the probation or parole officer “sees” in the tracking data becomes subject to interpretation from afar, while on the ground the monitored may not even be aware. Electronic monitoring ends up conceivable as an alternative to incarceration only if incarceration is conceived of as a place rather than a condition of life.

Gamifying the soul

Finally, there is another strand emerging out of imaginings of a high-tech future of incarceration. In Beyond the Bars, a Deloitte report that speculates on the possibility of “virtual incarceration,” the authors ask readers to imagine ankle monitors linked to mobile phone or tablet, which incorporate “game mechanics [that] encourage pro-social behavior and allow progress visualization.” While the report is largely speculative, companies like Corrisoft already offer to track offenders via smartphone, paired with a Bluetooth chip-containing ankle monitor to ensure that he or she has their phone with them at all times. Among this year’s winners of UPenn’s app-design contest, AppItUp, was a pitch for an app that serves as an “alternative to brick-and-mortar prisons” for nonviolent offenders. An example of how it might work is provided: “When you get a 100 points, maybe you get your zone of movement or your curfew extended.”

This is the language of self-empowerment and personal habit management familiar to the world of fitness tracking apps and devices — technology as an aid to moral realignment. It’s an extension of the logic which compares electronic monitoring to assistive health technologies; as one journal article puts it:

…an EM bracelet is a device that assists offenders to avoid the temptation of crime. By analogy, a pacemaker is a device that assists individuals whose heart muscles do not function properly and eyeglasses are devices that assist individuals whose eyes do not focus properly.

Just as a pacemaker aids someone whose heart muscles are too weak on their own, so too, the claim goes, can technology correct an arrhythmia of the soul. But what happens when access to space and basic rights becomes tied in this way to minute metrics of moral health?

Masking the margins

China Miéville’s science fiction detective novel, The City & The City, presents two fictional cities — each foreign to the other — which are so closely intertwined that they are literally cross-hatched into each other. Citizens of each city structure their entire lives around studiously avoiding the severe crime of stepping into foreign territory. The magical-realist geopolitics of this novel are less magical when one considers that real cities and towns are riddled internally with invisible borders, sometimes defined by and through technologies of surveillance and control. Access to space is already highly fraught with tensions over what is a privilege and what is a right. Apps like SketchFactor create a crowdsourced artifact — often reflective of their users’ racial biases, as critics have pointed out  — and made visible the unspoken social boundaries that mark off the “sketchy” neighborhoods from the “respectable” ones. GPS-enforced rules that are being used to restrict people ranging from violent offenders to truant high schoolers to traffic law violators, by contrast, create borders but leave them invisible, while making them painfully felt by those bounded by them.

This is the literal side of the word marginalized, and it’s what turns space itself hostile in ways that remain unseen and unacknowledged in wider spheres. It is important to ask how much of the prison walls are being brought into the streets.

This post originally appeared at Data & Society.