Mary P.'s kids think it's a pager. And at the community newspaper in metro Denver where she works as an assistant to the publisher, they kid her about how it complements her clothes. At this point, she thinks of it as her "buddy" and says, "It's with me night and day--when I sleep, when I have sex, it's there. It's on me all the time."

After two years in jail and six months in a halfway house, Mary is just weeks away from being paroled. All that stands between her and freedom is that little black box strapped around her ankle.

It's a box that connects her to BI Incorporated, a rapidly growing Boulder company that keeps electronic tabs on her and thousands like her throughout the country.

At 23, this former Miss Colorado contestant was sentenced to ten years for second-degree forgery, theft and criminal impersonation. She gave birth to her third child in February 1994, in prison.

Now she's 25 and on a home-monitoring ankle bracelet. She doesn't want her real name used in this story, because while she can't hide that black box, she doesn't need the world knowing why she wears it. Home monitoring to Mary means living clean (she is tested for drug and alcohol use regularly and randomly), staying on a prearranged schedule (generally just home and work), retaining custody of her three children and living in fear that the box will go off and ruin her chances for a new life.

"One night my electricity went out and I just panicked," she says, breathless at the memory. "I called my parole officer and told him what was going on, and then the minute I hung up, BI called and said my unit was disconnected. I told them what happened. I told them I'd stay on the phone and talk to them all night if they wanted me to. I called Public Service and made them write out a statement saying how long the electricity was down. You've got to cover your butt in all angles of this." She pauses, thinking about the implications of that power outage, and adds, "I care about my life now, and I didn't before."

The monitoring office at BI's Boulder headquarters looks more like a scene from a phone-company commercial than an electronic stakeout: Young and attractive operators perkily type on their computers and dial their phones. You'd swear at least one of them was spokesmodel Margie and that she was about to say, "No calling circles." Except this is BI and not AT&T, and today 9,180 "clients"--as BI refers to the home prisoners it monitors--are silently tracked inside their homes across the U.S. and are reported missing if they leave.

The spiels are a little different, too. "Hello, this is Laurel, and this call is being recorded..." says one operator. Calling circles couldn't be further from her mind. Seconds before, her board lit up with an out-of-range alert on Harry G. in Dallas. Laurel brings up Harry's file on her computer screen and dials his home number. "We always call the client first," she explains with a quick smile--Margie again. There is someone home, but it's not Harry. Laurel records the information on her screen and then dials Harry's parole officer, who has left specific directions to call without delay. She is polite, efficient and startlingly fast. She smiles throughout the phone call--hard, so you can hear it.

She's barely cleared the screen before the next call comes in, this time a probation officer changing a prisoner's schedule to allow him to be out of range long enough to undergo outpatient surgery. The officer is calling from Detroit, and Laurel recognizes his voice and calls him by his first name, but before giving out any information or touching a button on her computer screen, she asks for the contract number--a security rule that is religiously followed.

"We can't have clients calling in to change schedules, you know," Laurel says.

Certainly can't.
The similarities between regular phone-company operators and BI's operators are no accident. Joanna Manley, a BI investor-relations specialist, explains that BI (which operates a similar monitoring station in Anderson, Indiana) used to recruit operators with criminal-justice backgrounds, thinking they would learn their jobs quickly. Now BI looks for those with solid customer-service backgrounds, people who can handle hundreds of computer signals a day, make dozens of calls to ex-convicts and parole officers alike, and still maintain a pleasant demeanor.

Laurel isn't the operator's real name, either: BI policy. Not all prisoners are as accepting of the new technology as Mary P. is. A few years ago, Manley says, one parolee spent his free time tracking down information about the company that had made his ankle bracelet, then used it to make threats to BI's president, David J. Hunter. Since that time, the company has taken the idea of security quite seriously, asking reporters not to identify its street address or use the operators' real names.

Company security seems a strange notion to a group that started in 1978 doing basic research and development in the radio-frequency-identification (RFID) market. Back then, the company's big product was a device attached to dairy cattle. A radio signal on each cow kept track of its lactation schedule, thus allowing farmers to tailor feeding to the cattle's cyclical nutritional needs. Then a Spiderman comic inspired the idea of monitoring offenders using electronic bracelets. And in 1984, the home-arrest market was born.

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