Thirty five years ago, only one person in the United States was subject to electronic monitoring. His name was Spider-Man, he was battling evil on the pages of America’s newspapers; and for several weeks during the summer of 1977 the syndicated Spidey’s every move was tracked via an “electronic radar device” cuffed to his wrist by a villain known as the Kingpin.
“Even your awesome power cannot remove it!” the Kingpin exclaimed. “Nothing can—except my hidden laser key!”
While the Kingpin used electronic monitoring in the pursuit of evil, New Mexico state district court Judge Jack Love saw the Spider-Man strips and envisioned a more benevolent application of the Kingpin’s technology. In Love’s estimation, electronic monitoring could help alleviate overcrowded jails while simultaneously allowing individuals convicted of minor offenses a chance to serve their sentences in a manner that was “less degrading than being confined in prison.”
Love shared his vision with several electronics companies,
including the aerospace and computer industry giant Honeywell, but
none showed any
A Honeywell salesman, Michael Goss, embraced Judge Love’s vision, however. In 1982, he quit his job and started his own company, National Incarceration Monitoring and Control Services (NIMCOS), to develop a device.
The end result was a 4 oz. battery-powered, waterproof anklet
about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It emitted a radio signal
every minute or so, and these
signals were picked up on a receiver connected to a phone jack in the user’s home and then relayed to a central mainframe computer. The device had a range of approximately 150 feet. When a person wearing the anklet strayed further than that from the phone jack, the radio signal could no longer reach the receiver and the system would generate an alert message.
In April 1983, an individual on probation who was caught holding heroin agreed to serve as the device’s first user. He was allowed to leave his home each weekday to attend his job but showed little interest in discussing his experience with reporters—he even turned down requests to appear on the Today Show and That’s Incredible.
NIMCOS exhausted its funding before it was able to bring its system into wide usage, but another company, BI, Inc., eventually purchased it. BI quickly evolved into the offender tracking industry’s leading company. Today it supplies products and services to approximately 900 federal, state, and local agencies.
In 1999, when a publication called The Journal of Offender Monitoring conducted its first annual survey to determine the size of the industry, it estimated that there were 75,230 individuals under electronic supervision in the U.S. Ten years later, that number had more than doubled to 200,241—most of the growth came from the introduction of GPS-enabled devices that, unlike their radio-frequency predecessors, keep continuous track of an offender’s location.
Along with BI, Inc., approximately 20 other companies manufacture products for the offender tracking industry too. In Indiana, it costs $54.28 per day to incarcerate an adult inmate. In California, Riverside County made news last year when it announced it was going to start charging some inmates $142.42 per day for their jail stays—the amount it says it costs to keep them there.
In contrast, electronically monitoring offenders costs around $5 to $25 a day. According to a recently published Deloitte case study, moving half of the nation’s low-level offenders to electronic monitoring would save $16.1 billion on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, some states and municipalities are turning to electronic monitoring as a source of revenue. In Mountlake Terrace, Washington, for example, the city pays a company $5.75 per offender per day to provide electronic monitoring services, but it charges offenders who choose home detention over a stay in the local jail $20 per day. With approximately 10 to 14 offenders choosing this option on any given day, the city generates approximately $50,000 to $60,000 a year outsourcing incarceration to the community.
But as an increasing number of cash-strapped states and cities look to electronic monitoring as a means of putting their budgets on lockdown, is there more they could be asking of it?
Nearly 20 years before the Kingpin inspired Judge Jack Love, a pair of identical twins named Robert and Ralph Kirkland Gable had begun to experiment with an electronic monitoring system in the course of their studies as graduate students at Harvard. Their system positioned electronic monitoring as a tool in the process of positive reinforcement rather than a means of deterrence, a way for individuals to document instances of good behavior. (The Gables’ original surname was Schwitzgebel. They legally changed it in 1982.)
“My brother’s advisor was Tim Leary—there was a lot of crazy, creative stuff going on with that,” says Robert Gable, who obtained a PhD in Education from Harvard in 1964 and is now a Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) at Claremont Graduate College. “I was a student of B.F. Skinner. He was mostly working with pigeons and was very boring as a lecturer, and I wasn’t interested in doing anything in the lab. But my brother came up with this idea—why don’t we try the stuff that Skinner’s doing with pigeons on juvenile delinquents?”