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United States News Technology

Building Prisons Without Walls Using GPS Devices 545

Hugh Pickens writes "Graeme Wood writes in the Atlantic that increasingly GPS devices are looking like an appealing alternative to conventional incarceration, as it becomes ever clearer that 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,' writes Wood. But new devices such as ExacuTrack suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might do 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,' adds Wood. 'The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.'"
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Building Prisons Without Walls Using GPS Devices

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  • by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:15AM (#33424262)
    But the bad news is that it has no basic impact on crime, on re-offending [bbc.co.uk], with many criminals comitting crimes while tagged.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Meneth ( 872868 )

      Might have something to do with the facts that:

      1. Criminals aren't tagged at the time of release, but sometime later.

      2. The tags are handled by private companies, not the government.

      It's like there was a competition, "How badly can we screw this up?", and everyone tried their hardest.

      • by xaxa ( 988988 )

        That news article is from five years ago, it would be interesting to read something a bit more recent. I can't find anything from a reliable source though.

    • by value_added ( 719364 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:38AM (#33424378)

      Apparently, neither does incarceration. ;-)

      In the US, particularly here in California, the prison industry and unions have a disproportionate influence on the workings of the criminal justice system.

      The way I see it, the only way a GPS-based system would be implemented as anything but a pilot program would if there were huge amounts of money to be made. If saving money was the issue, we could reduce crime, costs, and prison populations starting tomorrow simply by writing each offenders a monthly check for a portion of their incarceration cost. Last I heard, that would give each evil do-er a comfortable middle class existence.

      • by Chrisq ( 894406 )

        Apparently, neither does incarceration. ;-)

        Well it does for the period that they are incarcerated.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Jedi Alec ( 258881 )

        The way I see it, the only way a GPS-based system would be implemented as anything but a pilot program would if there were huge amounts of money to be made. If saving money was the issue, we could reduce crime, costs, and prison populations starting tomorrow simply by writing each offenders a monthly check for a portion of their incarceration cost. Last I heard, that would give each evil do-er a comfortable middle class existence.

        Heck, you could go a few steps further and implement proper educational and so

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by vertinox ( 846076 )

        Last I heard, that would give each evil do-er a comfortable middle class existence.

        Why not? There are so many laws on file now that we're all criminals to some extent without knowing it. The majority of people in prison are the ones who got caught and couldn't afford a lawyer.

        The sad fact about prison is that the people who really deserve to be there (the socio-paths etc) tend to influence the non-socio paths into socio-paths so when they get out of prison they already have contacts on the outside to go com

    • That's old style tags (with no GPS to track where you go during the day), and if you'll read your own article ... it explains most of the fail is by the people who are supposed to administer the tags (but don't do a very good job).

    • by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:36AM (#33425002)

      Arguably, given the article you posted, it doesn't appear to be effective in the way it was presented, but I found a few points interesting.

      This person gives no references for the statement claiming 'it doesn't work', nor does he compare it to the current incarceration method statistics and he doesn't present any statistics from typical prison based incarceration. He of course only speaks to and ask about the worst case scenarios (those that managed to get out of their collars, those that these private companies failed to monitor, or those that didn't get them in the first place), which of course gives him worse statistics than expected.

      Last point that I noticed, the article said the companies could not supply him with any studies indicating that tagging was effective. The point being that they simply don't know if it's effective as no studies have been done to date, or they aren't aware of any. You interpreted that as "it doesn't work".

      But the bad news is that it has no basic impact on crime, on re-offending [bbc.co.uk], with many criminals comitting crimes while tagged.

  • by mbstone ( 457308 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:15AM (#33424264)

    In the future, everyone will have to carry a GPS, not just "prisoners," and you won't be allowed in Beverly Hills without an appointment.

    • by RadioElectric ( 1060098 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:25AM (#33424940)
      I was surprised to see that this wasn't even mentioned in the article. The problem with this system is that it blurs the line between criminals and "free" citizens. Once this becomes cheaper, and the technology is less obtrusive, will there be any reason to not make the devices permanent? Once it is shown to be effective for preventing people reoffending for serious crimes, what will stop them rolling it out to people who commit even minor crimes (the article even mentions using it being used for truancy).

      Although this sounds like it will help with a few of the issues that are faced with managing the criminal population, I don't see any way of preventing it's eventual use to control society as a whole. Though if history has taught us anything it's that the eventual measures of control which are used will be more insidious than we could imagine from looking at this technology now.
  • ...I can imagine there is plenty that could go wrong here, but at the same time there is plenty that can go right. I think it would take a good bit of time to really do a list comparison to weigh the full pros and cons of such a move.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:17AM (#33424276)

    That way if they do something wrong it will be easier to prove and the "incarceration" can be switched on remotely. Add an integrated taser and you've got the ultimate means of population control.

    Maybe the problem is the laws are fucked up??? Maybe their incarcerating for things that should be a summary offense? Maybe there are too many laws?

    The people in 1984 had it easy.

    • by Chrisq ( 894406 )

      That way if they do something wrong it will be easier to prove and the "incarceration" can be switched on remotely. Add an integrated taser and you've got the ultimate means of population control.

      Save this comment .... I have a feeling that sometime not to far in the future it could be "prior art".

  • While the prison system is definately a failure, GPS devices can also not reach all goals the prisons were intended to serve. Of the tree common goals of punishment (deterrence, protection of citizens, re-education), the current prison system fails (hard) at re-education. GPS will fail at protection (and probably at deterrance).
    • So? There are a shit-ton of prisoners who are absolutely no danger to others when they go in, but may get de-habilitated by the prison experience.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Joce640k ( 829181 )

      Violent offenders would still be locked up.

      (Obviously, I thought... why do geeks have to be so "all or nothing"?)

      • by rts008 ( 812749 )

        (Obviously, I thought... why do geeks have to be so "all or nothing"?)

        'Cause it's binary.
        Well, sometimes it's hexadecimal, but in this case binary...definitely binary.

  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:20AM (#33424294)

    In order for this to work properly, the surveillance must keep an eye on the prisoners. But humans are group animals - prisoners outside a prison will have contact with innocent citizens. So, logically, surveillance will be forced to keep an eye on everybody.

    Checking whether they show up at work at the right time, and leave at the right time can be automated.
    But how to check what a "prisoner" does in its free time? How to make sure they don't engage in other illegal activities? You must keep an eye on the surroundings, and all the people who are in contact with the convict.

    I conclude that this plan has the potential to be the biggest privacy failure in history.
    The prisoners win, the system wins, but the innocent bystanders who never do something wrong will have to fear that the nation-wide surveillance will be massively extended. (But hey, they got nothing to hide, right?)

    But everybody will break the law at some point... and with such a huge surveillance, soon the government will own everybody. Ok, ok, I might exaggerate a bit... but this is no development to applaud for.

  • An image came to my mind: everyone is GPS-tracked and implanted with a remote electrocution kit and the batteries.
    Also, iirc the effective precision of GPS is sometimes limited? What happens when someone's not trying to flee but the system think he is?
  • And, hey, why not have GPS-guided white balloons [wikimedia.org] to replace the gards ? It would certainly make jails more humane [wikipedia.org]...

    Oh, I see they have it in a sort of "geek gadget" shop [portmeiriononline.co.uk] too...

  • But it was cool watching their heads blow up. That is what we're talking about, right?
  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:29AM (#33424324)

    Roughly 25% [commondreams.org] of people in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses.

    We could implement this GPS plan and fund a nice chunk of corporate socialism for the industry around it.

    Or we could get the stick out of our ass, end the war on drugs and start making our deeds better match our words about being the most free country on the planet and in the process shave 25% of the taxpayers' prison bill - maybe even more considering how much violent crime is derivative of the drug trade.

    • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:33AM (#33424352)

      While I'm at it, I'd like to point out that more people die of drug overdoses from legal prescription drugs [hhs.gov] than do from illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, meth (~8700 vs 10K-13K in 2005 a steadily increasing trend for the decade beforehand while the rate of illegal ODs stayed roughly flat).

      If the war on drugs is about stopping people from hurting themselves and the people who depend on them, then what fuck are we doing?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Haedrian ( 1676506 )

        The statistics are skewed. The amount of people who take illegal drugs is not equal to the amount of people who take legal drugs - therefore there's no link.

        Similarly, the amount of people who die every year driving cars is less than the amount of people who die every year from jumping off the leaning tower of pisa with bombs strapped to them while wearing large pink hats. Therefore jumping off towers with bombs wearing pink hats is safer. QED.

        • Is more than*


        • I think you need to factor in that those taking illegal drugs are taking drugs that have been tampered with by every lowlife imaginable, bathtub meth, heroin that can be really high-grade or practically worthless and so on. Those taking prescription drugs are taking professionally manufactured and tested drugs in doses recommended by their physicians who most likely have a lot of education and experience when it comes to prescribing drugs.

          Now, I'm not saying everyone should run out and do heroin or meth, ju

        • by nlvp ( 115149 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:42AM (#33425040)

          No they're not, the poster and the article talk about total drug deaths, there is no underlying assumption of equality in the size of the populations.

          The article referenced is also focused on the trend : a rapidly increasing number of deaths from prescription drug overdoses, which presages a significant problem in the years to come.

          To use your example, and using the numbers in Jah-Wren's post, its as if 8700 people died from car crashes and 10-13K people jumped off the tower wearing a pink hat, and the 10-13K is increasing rapidly year-on-year. That's a pink-hat-and-tower problem, regardless of how you slice your statistics.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kenh ( 9056 )

      Sounds nice, but when 1/4th of the prison population turns up in neighborhoods across America with their tell
      -tale "I took/take drugs" GPS collar, anklet they might find it a little bit hard to find a job, and they could easily find themselves treated as a new social leper, joining the registered sex offenders who have to live a certain distance from schools, playgrounds, etc (to protect the children). So, once you have turned out 25% of the prison population and branded them unemployable, how will they liv

      • by shiftless ( 410350 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:14PM (#33428662) Homepage

        Drug users poison themselves, and I find very few possession charges of "individual use" quantities of drugs that carry mandatory prison time... Drug dealing poisons not only the dealer, but also the community, and almost always carries mandatory prison time - as it should.

        What? How the hell is growing a plant and selling its dried flowers "poisoning" anyone? Caffeine has killed more people than marijuana has (which is ZERO.) That's not even to mention its numerous medicinal properties. So tell me, when an A student at an engineering college gets busted for growing a few plants in his closet because some Stasi-style snitch (i.e. neighbor vs neighbor, family vs. family, set up and controlled by the police) ratted him out, and now he's a felon and can't vote or even get a damn job, is that just and fair? Is that the system you want to see continued? Is it because you can't stand the idea of a person deciding to live differently than you, or is it simply because you (like 90% of non drug users) are completely and proudly ignorant as to what the whole thing is even all about? Try smoking a joint some time, see what happens, then get back to me about how just and holy you still think it is for non violent, otherwise non-criminal drug users to be imprisoned, fined, and branded for their "crimes."

  • Prison is both a deterrant and a way of stopping people from activly doing bad things.

    But if I'm dealing drugs (for example), tracking me won't make much of a difference, I'll still be able to do my thing.

    Similarly, nothing's there to stop me stealing from shops or whatever.

    Also where's the punishment in this?

    • by dave420 ( 699308 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @06:20AM (#33424606)

      The main thing is that prison is the absolute best way western societies have to turn Mr. "Sold a little bit of weed to his friends" into Mr. "Stabbed some dudes in the neck in a bar" or Mr. "Habitual burglar". Prisons have an unwavering ability to turn non-violent offenders into more violent ones, which are then released into society. You asking "where's the punishment" would make sense if prison worked perfectly from society's point of view. It doesn't. The first question that should be asked is how we can make prison into the deterrent it should be, while at the same time ensuring that society doesn't lose a great chunk of its money-making public into violent offenders.

      The punishment is that your schedule is controlled 100% by the prison. Yes, you could steal from shops or sell drugs, but as you can be placed at the scene rather easily, and would be sent back to prison for any infraction, I doubt anyone would do it. The same goes for selling drugs.

  • by Rene S. Hollan ( 1943 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:32AM (#33424350)

    ... often far safer than "open time" in the quad, and yes, I write from experience.

  • Its too cheap (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Everyone breaks some laws in modern life. It can be as simple as speeding to not filling a form out correctly.

    This makes "jail" cheap enough for everyone. Also I suspect over time it would evolve into something like what released sex offenders have to deal with. At least prisoners get food and medical care.

    Just put a collar on some one, tell them they are not allowed to go anywhere over 5 miles away. And not to a list of prohibited places and let them go... Who will hire them?

    How will they eat. What ab

  • While GPS technology has come a long way and the low SNR performance of newer GPS modules is amazing operation indoors remains patchy at best. My single level weatherboard house is not so bad normally, but even there I get some inability to acquire indoors depending on satellite geometry at the time. I think with long-term monitoring they'd have to be some threshold where they simply treated no acquisition of a signal as a normal event. I guess they could install re-radiating antennas inside a prisoner's ho
  • What you must do is connect the device with an other prisoner, but in such a way that they do not know who the oter one is and if they are too far from each other, the device will explode [imdb.com]

  • There have been numerous reports of how our GPS-tracked parolees have violated parole and their overburdened parole officers have simply not been able to pursue the matter. While I'm not necessarily a fan of prisons and throwing people in one for every little infraction, it seems like replacing one failed strategy with another that we can reasonably predict will also fail is just foolish.

    Perhaps we need to figure out a way to make the GPS solution work before we start to use it.

    Or perhaps we need to figure

  • The City of Fresno built a park downtown, and installed power outlets for people to plug their laptops into, etc.

    Turns out these shady-looking guys started meeting there every day. Some people started noticing, and then noticed they had their ankle bracelets plugged into the outlets. Who were they? A bunch of child molesters.

    The city turned off the outlets soon after that.

    But where did these guys go, then? They needed to charge their anklets, after all.

    The very helpful Fresno PD threw a long extension cable

  • Failed Prisons? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Spacelord ( 27899 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:55AM (#33424480)

    TFA claims that prisons have failed. I don't entirely agree. The way I see it, prisons have three roles: one is reeducation, when we release someone from prison, they should come out as better citizens, not better criminals. In that respect, you could say that prisons have failed.

    The second role of prisons however is punishment: prison SHOULD be an unpleasant experience for someone who has committed a crime. It should be a deterrent, something they will never want to experience again. Also, if you're a victim of a crime, you want to know that the criminal actually gets punished and doesn't get off with just a slap on the wrist.

    Finally, the third role of prisons is protecting society, taking dangerous individuals out of the loop for a considerable amount of time so that they can't do any harm.

    It seems to me that while GPS tracking devices may help somewhat with role 1, they don't do anything for role 2 and 3. So in my opinion, they shouldn't be a replacement for a prison system, but an addition to it, for instance in combination with the parole system.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Joce640k ( 829181 )

      prison SHOULD be an unpleasant experience for someone who has committed a crime.

      Thing is, most of the really nasty people don't have too bad of a time in prison. The people who really suffer are the minor offenders who end up as Bubba's bitch (and Bubba quite enjoys breaking in his bitches, making them suffer helps him relieve the boredom and he gets free sex whenever he wants it).

  • by Wowsers ( 1151731 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:55AM (#33424482) Journal

    Why go to all that effort of targeting criminals? You could do like what the UK has done, install CCTV EVERYWHERE and make the entire country a virtual prison.

    Speaking from my experience, it feels nice to get out of the UK on holiday. However, due to the number of cameras and them being everywhere everywhere, the UK really does feel like one large open prison when you return. So much for being a free country.

  • by Alcoholist ( 160427 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:57AM (#33424498) Homepage

    Here's a notion. Why not try to figure out what is wrong with your society that causes so much crime and then deal with it. Then you won't have to put so many people in prison. The U.S. is the land of the free, yet it has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Surely someone must be asking, "Hey, why is that?"

  • Be aware that there's now a 50% chance they could be a convict thwarting GPS instead of a nutcase thwarting the government.

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @06:48AM (#33424762) Homepage

    "War on Drugs" anyone? They eventually backed down from prohibition of alcohol, so why not other substances? There is a lot of stuff that should be legal and no point in going into a discussion about it. We have even more laws that need repealing as well such as those associated with prostitution and other activities. These aren't "nice" things to do and I probably wouldn't engage in any of them, but I don't think they should be illegal either. People are going to trash their lives no matter what laws are written. The impact on society that turning them into felons has is fewer voters and a lot more bus boys and career criminals. (No one will hire a felon for a good job. Not ever.)

    Fix the laws, there will be fewer criminals.

    • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

      Drugs such as opium and heroin WERE legal but they caused so much misery and strife that they were banned in almost all nations. People who thing legalising drugs will somehow make addicts and the problems they cause vanish are living in a dream world. Perhaps you might like to check out the number of deaths either through violence , drunk driving or liver disease from alcohol - that well known legal drug.

  • by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:35PM (#33427436) Homepage

    The fundamental problem is not the how-prisons-work part. The real problem is the putting-people-in-the-system part.

    Reducing the cost of removing people's freedom will not solve the problem, it will incentivize it and increase it. Just like (a) computers didn't create paperless offices, and (b) increased efficiency didn't lead to reduced work hours, and (c) tasers didn't lead to a reduction police abuse, and (d) helmets don't reduce motorcycle accident rates, and (e) unmanned killer drones don't reduce the length of our wars.

    Instead, I propose: re-writing drug laws and incarcerating a fraction of the people we do now.

  • by cowtamer ( 311087 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:41PM (#33428258) Journal

    Where it works this may be good in the short run, but I see a couple of potential (and sinister) downsides:

    1) It makes punishment much more acceptable. I'm not so worried about the deterrent value, but the fact that you might get put under surveillance for unpaid library fines, downloading the wrong file, etc. This yet another slippery slide into a police state.

    2) It makes surveillance much more acceptable, and helps fine tune the technology for it. If it turns out that criminals who do not misbehave live perfectly happy lives under the system, and if it is demonstrated that crime goes down when more people are under such surveillance, the "nanny state" types might be pushing for more people to be tagged like this. The typical "if you're doing nothing wrong, why wouldn't want this?" "think of the children" "terrorism, etc." arguments might be advanced by some and swallowed whole by the increasingly surveillance-desensitized public.

    2.5) It may make law enforcement lazy, causing them to push for more of this technology (cheaper, more effective, etc). You can draw an analogy with the convenience of warrant-less wiretapping

    I'm not sure what the full answer is, but more surveillance (even if it's just for the criminals -- for now --) gives me a very uneasy feeling....

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