Inmate Accountability – You Can Run But You Cannot Hide (Part II)

In our last article we explored the use of inmate accountability technology within secure prison settings. In community corrections where offenders have direct access to the public, ensuring public safety means the same question applies – is the inmate where he or she is supposed to be?

Electronic monitoring is the technology of choice when it comes to answering this question. Electronic monitoring is usually associated with offenders on parole or probation, individuals on pre-trial release, sex offenders, and as an alternative to incarceration. It is also used, however, in corrections to monitor inmates in community corrections settings such as pre-release centers.

The term electronic monitoring is most commonly associated with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or ankle bracelet programs. Electronic monitoring, however, encompasses a wide variety of technologies designed to assist in the remote supervision of offenders in the community. These include remote alcohol monitoring, voice verification, sleep pattern analysis to identify drug and alcohol use, motion detection analysis, polygraphs, and kiosks.

The utilization of kiosks is one creative use of technology to achieve accountability and monitoring when personal interactions are not required. For example, kiosks can be used to monitor payment of court costs, restitution, and fines. It can also be used to monitor compliance with random drug testing requirements. Another application is for use as an automated reporting system where the offender can complete a routine interview.

Accountability and personal identification can be achieved through biometric fingerprint technology. As these supervision activities do not necessitate face-to-face meetings, a great deal of resources can be saved through this technology. Probation and parole departments that have utilized kiosk technology include New York City and Maryland.

While GPS systems are popular and many people have some degree of awareness, not all systems are created equal or function in exactly the same way. When considering purchasing a system it is important to understand the different types of technologies, capabilities, limitations, and cost implications of the devices on the market.

GPS provides users with positioning, navigation, and timing services and was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense as a precise navigation system for military use and for asset tracking. The system is comprised of three segments – space, control, and user, with the space and control segments being operated by the U.S. Air Force. The space segment encompasses 24 GPS satellites, four of which are always visible, that orbit the earth and constantly transmit one-way radio signals. These satellites are the core of the system and provide the exact position and time. In order to access this information GPS receiver equipment must be used to receive the signals from the satellites. The receivers then use the transmitted data to identify the user’s three-dimensional position and time. GPS receivers must accurately identify the precise location of the satellites. When it locates one, it measures how far away it is from at least four separate satellites. Slight variations in the satellite’s orbit are constantly monitored and any adjustments to the exact positions are transmitted to all GPS receivers via the satellites’ signals.

In essence, the receiver component comprises the user segment, which is operated by private and public entities that utilize various types of equipment to receive the satellite signals. There are two primary types of GPS technology: active and passive systems. Both GPS systems typically require a receiver, radio frequency transmitter with tamper resistant strap, stationary charging unit, and software to view the data. GPS systems usually utilize one-or two-piece wearable units. The transmitter and receiver may be separate devices or they may be integrated into one devise. The most widely used devices in community corrections are ankle bracelets.

Active and passive GPS tracking devices collect data similarly. The difference is the frequency with which the data is reported. Active GPS transmitters broadcast signals continuously at regular intervals and use cellular communications networks to report the data to a central computer. This means that information relative to the individual’s precise location is received in real time. In contrast, the receipt of data in passive GPS systems is delayed. The location and time data are stored in the receiver and downloaded to the central computer at predetermined intervals.

Another type of GPS system is known as the hybrid. Hybrid systems can operate in both active and passive modes and typically use cellular technology. They can be programmed to report certain violations such as tampering with the equipment or exclusion zone violations in real time (active mode). Delayed notification (passive mode) is utilized to report other types of violations and location data at predetermined intervals throughout the day. They typically send data more frequently than strictly passive systems.

In community corrections, GPS can be used to set up exclusion and inclusion zones for pre-release inmates on work or program release. For example, exclusion zones can be programmed around prohibited areas such as the victim or restraining order subject’s location, schools, drug-free zones, known security threat group meeting areas, or any other situation-specific location. When an inmate violates those zones an alert is sent to staff. Conversely, inclusion zones can be established around locations that the inmate is required to be at, such as work sites, treatment centers, etc. If the inmate is not at that location at the scheduled time staff will be alerted. The system is also useful for tracking events after the fact. Should a crime be committed in a proximate area, the inmate’s movements can be retraced to determine if he or she was at that location at the time.

So what system is best for you? Active? Passive? Hybrid? You need to consider your goals, supervision type, program requirements, risk level, and speed of response desired. You may want to consider active GPS for higher risk inmates, violent offenders, or higher institutional security levels with greater controls and regulations. While there are obvious benefits to immediate alerts, active GPS systems are more costly and rely on cellular service so careful consideration should be given to the urgency for public safety and consequences of not responding immediately to an event. Passive systems are less costly and may be the better choice for some situations such as when the program is designed for low-risk or non-violent offenders, the goal is to monitor compliance with programmatic requirements, a movement trail is desired for periodic review, the system is used for deterrence, there is no cellular coverage, or when the program does not require exclusion zones or immediate response. Hybrid systems are more cost effective than active systems and may be a good choice for situations where immediate notification is desired only for certain higher risk zone violations and delayed notification is sufficient for more programmatic or technical violations.

After 29 years with the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Alex Fox retired from his position as director of security technology to launch a private consulting venture. Dorothy Fox served as director of systems development during a 22-year career with the Massachusetts Department of

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