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.
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.
Eleven years later, BI is reporting $6.8 million in revenues for the first quarter of fiscal 1995, up 27.2 percent from the same period last year. And it's shifted its emphasis from selling monitoring equipment to delivering monitoring services--essentially guaranteeing recurring income.
Home monitoring isn't all BI does. The company, touting itself as "your corrections industry partner," also develops and sells software to help authorities manage their inmates and cases.
And the new ideas keep coming. Already, BI's research-and-development team has created a breathalyzer device that hooks up to a telephone and measures blood-alcohol levels at the same time it takes a voice imprint, so the parole or probation officer at the other end can be assured the reading he's getting is from his client.
In addition, criminal-justice agencies are constantly going back to BI with requests for new twists on their products: home-monitoring devices for domestic-abuse victims that beep when prior attackers violate restraining orders and come within a certain distance, and receivers that allow officers to tell whether a parolee is at home simply by driving by the residence. One big sign of the publicly traded company's faith in its future is an almost crusade-level corporate buy-back of stock. (It also helped to boost stock prices, which soon rose 48.5 percent.)
There's a good amount of reason behind that faith. The U.S. has the world's second-highest incarceration rate--519 prisoners per 100,000 residents, according to Mark Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a national, nonprofit organization that does research in criminal justice. The rate, second only to Russia's, has quadrupled over the past twenty years. BI recently calculated for one of its annual reports that if the rate of incarceration continues to grow like it has, fully half of the United States' population will be behind bars by 2050. It may be a nightmare for policymakers, taxpayers and prison officials, but it's a burgeoning industry for BI. The company claims to do 43 percent of all the electronic monitoring nationwide and sell 83 percent of all the monitoring equipment used.
It's big business to have emerged from such a tiny, drab product. The company's electronic-monitoring device consists of a two-inch-square transmitter, which is affixed to a person's ankle, and its companion laptop-computer-sized receiver that connects to a telephone jack inside the wearer's home. Anytime that person roams outside, say, 100 feet of his house, someone official knows about it. Instantly.
Jimmy Duran knows that. He's had a BI bracelet strapped to his left ankle since last December.
"I know if I mess up, my life's over," says Duran, who has no qualms about revealing his real name. At 36, Duran has spent fourteen years in prison, twelve in California and two in Colorado. With eight prior felony convictions for everything from armed robbery to assaulting a police officer, this is Duran's last chance. And he says he's taking it very seriously: "My twin brother's doing two life sentences right now in California. That's not going to be me."
"Messing up" would mean violating curfew, not showing up to work, using alcohol or drugs or possessing a weapon. By definition, Duran is still an inmate. His jail: the structure enforced by the clunky jewelry that dangles on his foot.
And he's seen it work. Recently, he says, he went across the street to a halfway house to take his daily breathalyzer test. When he returned home minutes later, the phone was already ringing. It was a BI operator, informing him he'd been traced outside his defined boundaries after curfew. He explained where he'd been, and later his parole officer altered the schedule that shows up on BI's computers to allow Duran the time to give his daily puff. Still, Duran says he's not taking any chances. "I have to pay because of my past," he says. "Now I'm straight."
"BI electronic monitoring. This is Laurel. This call is being recorded..." This time it's a Montana probation officer calling in a one-time schedule change for a prisoner. As soon as Laurel finishes, her screen beeps: It's been thirty minutes since BI first learned that Samuel D. in Baltimore dropped out of range. Laurel calls the officer in charge, who authorizes a one-time extension. Laurel's next computer beep is more serious: This prisoner has two receivers, one at home, one at work, and he's out of range on both. Her fingers flash: The calls go out.
You can't help but think that some parents might be interested in this sort of thing. It's ten o'clock; do you know where your teenagers are? Damn right we do.
Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal in Providence, Rhode Island, says he isn't too worried about the privacy implications of the ankle bracelets--not yet, anyway. "It's less a deprivation of privacy than incarceration is," he says. "But the industry is probably moving towards microchip implants beneath the skin. That would be more permanent, and scarring could end up in a sort of `scarlet letter.' But even then, it's probably a better alternative to incarceration."
Other uses of the technology, though, could have more insidious implications.
"After parole, then certain law-abiding citizens, then..." Smith says, pausing for effect. "The Violent Crime Control Act includes a provision for the Department of Justice to spend $900,000 a year for three years to study using this technology for those with Alzheimer's, to protect and locate missing patients. The section is entitled, `Missing Alzheimer Disease Patients Alert Program.'
"That's the way it starts," Smith says. "Benign uses."
He may have a point. Implants are already being used to permanently identify and track pets, cars and other items of value. Ford even offers an electronic device it attaches to keys that customizes seat, wheel and temperature controls, depending on the driver.
But Joanna Manley of BI shakes her head at the question of other uses. "We make this technology for criminal-justice purposes," she insists. She does acknowledge that the company has been approached about everything from Alzheimer's patients to baby nurseries. "There may be some time in the future we'd think about licensing some of the patents for those purposes," Manley says, "but for now we've committed to helping to provide system solutions for the correctional industry."
And those are the same kinds of solutions the corrections industry itself is calling for.
Bobbie Huskey, president of the American Correctional Association, says her trade association is urging Congress to adopt a "more balanced approach" to crime control, including "more community punishment, electronic monitoring, intensive supervision."
Huskey is adamant about the need for what she calls "community-based" punishments. "We're the ones out there toiling in the fields, and we know what works," she says. "Research has shown that education works, monitoring and drug testing all work. Nationwide, three-quarters of all the people on electronic monitoring successfully complete all court-ordered conditions" such as anger-control seminars, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, community service, restitution and child support.
Electronic monitoring is being used everywhere on the criminal-justice spectrum: to keep track of defendants awaiting trial (more secure than mere bonding, less secure than imprisonment) or as an alternative to incarceration for those convicted of minor offenses. It also is used as a transitional period for those who are nearing the end of sentences--as in the cases of Mary P. and Jimmy Duran.
In Denver alone, there are three separate programs using what is known as "intensive supervision." The City of Denver has 120 people on BI's bracelets; 3,000 have worn the bracelets since the electronic-monitoring program started in 1990 for curfew violators, those driving under suspended licenses, habitual misdemeanor offenders and the like. Clients have been as young as 11, as old as 81. This is what's called a "front-end" program, utilizing the bracelets as an alternative to jail. Emily W. got "on the bracelet" after her second DUI. Now she's going to AA meetings and is scheduled to start treatment with Antabuse--a drug that will make her violently ill should she ingest alcohol. She says the bracelet was like a wake-up call: Clean up her life or head for jail. With a four-year-old and a twenty-month-old to look after, as well as a full-time job, she says she's grateful for the weight that hangs around her right ankle.
Marilyn Rosenberg, the program's director, points out that 79 percent of those participating in the program are employed, continuing to "contribute" to society, something that jail rules out. The program Rosenberg runs allows "clients" out of their home for three purposes only: work, drug and alcohol treatment and community service. No extra trips for grocery shopping or errands.
For the younger set, there's Correctional Connections, a pretrial release program run under contract with the city's Division of Youth; it's got 58 bracelets going right now. Here youthful offenders awaiting trial who are judged "appropriate risks" are removed from juvenile jails and given bracelets.
Denver District Court runs about twenty bracelets at a time for its Intensive Supervision program, says Jack Lutes, chief probation officer for Denver District Court, as an "additional sanction on clients" to ensure that they fulfill their probation agreements. The statewide total is 200 in programs similar to Lutes's. Colorado's judicial districts spend $300,000 a year in contracts with BI.
On any given day, between 500 and 600 state convicts (people like Jimmy Duran and Mary P.) are on intensive supervision programs run by the Colorado Department of Corrections. BI is expected to gross between $5.2 million and $6.5 million from that contract over the next five years, less than half of 1 percent of the DOC's annual budget.
Finally, there's the federal level. BI is midway through a $1.5 million, three-year contract with the U.S. court system. In Colorado, about thirty federal prisoners are currently being monitored.
In all, BI monitors nearly 1,000 "clients" in Colorado alone. And the agencies, beset by overcrowded jails and prisons, claim the monitoring saves money. To put an offender in state prison costs about $55 a day in Colorado. Electronic monitoring reduces that cost to about $15--and that includes the salaries of parole or probation officers. In addition, most of these "community" programs require the offenders to pay, on a sliding scale, for the privilege of wearing the bracelet.
"Maybe ten years ago," says corrections industry official Bobbie Huskey, "there were a lot of questions about what kind of offenders were going to be on it, how it was going to be used, whether it would replace face-to-face contact. All those questions have subsided now. There's been a national acceptance of community punishment as an option."
And Colorado Department of Public Safety statistics show almost identical proportions in the racial and ethnic makeup of Colorado's general inmate population compared with its electronically monitored population. Even the ACLU seems unperturbed. "To the extent it reduces the number of people locked up in prison...it seems more humane and practical," says James Joy, executive director of Colorado's ACLU chapter.
Still, both BI and its governmental customers caution that electronic monitoring is no panacea. The limitations of the ankle bracelet are clear: This is not an electric fence. It doesn't keep the wearer in; it simply signals if the wearer goes outside of range. It's also not a tracking device. Once the wearer slips out of range, where they are is anyone's guess. And finally, the bracelet cannot signal what associates the wearer may invite to his home.
Those problems have stirred criticism. Denver County Court Judge Aleene Ortiz-White was recently taken to task by the local media for allowing repeat drunk driver Patricio Martinez out on electronic home monitoring. Martinez reportedly was still wearing his ankle bracelet early last September when he was pulled from the wreckage he caused when he smashed his car into the motorcycle of Arthur Lance Foery. Foery died. And, in the summer of 1993, Gail Levine, the accused Pepsi-tamperer from Denver, made it all the way to Cheyenne after she cut off her ankle bracelet, despite the fact that police arrived at her home seven minutes after the bracelet first sent out a signal that it was being tampered with. (She was later apprehended.)
"It's an inexact science," says state corrections spokeswoman Liz McDonough. "Predicting human behavior is not easy to do, but that's what we're doing, whether it's deciding to monitor, parole or incarcerate."
The clients themselves know that success has more to do with who's wearing the bracelet than the bracelet itself. "Of all the guys I know who tried to make it out," says Jimmy Duran, "90 percent messed up and went back."
Dana I., a 42-year-old mother of one who spent eight years in state prison for armed robbery and now wears a BI bracelet, agrees. "If they're knuckleheads and they come out and they don't plan on making it," she says, "they're going to mess up."
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More prisoners, however, will at least get a chance to try electronic monitoring in the future. A 1993 change in state law calls for mandatory transitional programs following all periods of incarceration. Before 1993, if a convict served his sentence in full, he was discharged from jail without followup or supervision. Now, supervision after incarceration will be the rule for everyone in state prisons. And that means more business for BI.
For Mary P., the business end of electronic monitoring is of little concern. She's got her own future to worry about.
"I've worked so hard for this," she says. "It's a process, you know. Being able to make it through prison, and then the halfway house, and now this. It's a privilege you earn."
In a month she'll try to convince the parole board that she's finally earned the privilege not to wear that bracelet.