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
interest.

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?”

Skinner pioneered the concept of operant conditioning—the idea that behavior could be changed by systematically reinforcing specific actions with positive or negative stimuli. Give a pigeon a food pellet every time it pecks a button and it will get quite good at pecking buttons. Give it a shock every time it does, and it will avoid this behavior.

“Our plan was to apply positive reinforcement to juvenile delinquents, but in order to reinforce them when something they were doing was right, we had to get some electronic equipment on them,” Gable explains. Participants carried transmitters that sent radio signals to receivers the Gables had set up around Cambridge, Massachusetts. These receivers relayed the signals to a missile-tracking device the Gables had purchased from a war surplus supplier and displayed the participants’ current positions on a large screen. “This way we knew when they were at work or school or drug treatment, or doing something else they were supposed to be doing,” Gable says.

If the participants went to the places they were supposed to go, they became eligible for prizes in a weekly lottery. For example, one prize involved chauffeuring a participant in a limousine to his job at a gas station “We knew a guy who ran a limo service, and he wasn’t very busy in the mornings. So we arranged for him to pick up one of our kids and take him to work for a week. The kid would get all dressed up, the neighbors would come out, the kid would parade into the limo,” Gable recalls.

The Gables’ system included the ability to measure heart-rates and send messages back and forth in the form of electronic beeps, and they were also envisioning systems that could monitor blood-alcohol levels, brain wave activity, and other physiological data. In 1962, Look magazine published an article on their research efforts. In 1964, Ralph published a book detailing their experiments, Streetcorner Research, and eventually a producer from Universal Pictures bought the rights to the book with the intention of making a movie out of it.

Overall, however, initial public reaction to the Gables’ devices tended to be negative. Electronic monitoring seemed intrusive, operant conditioning too prone toward the sort of applications Anthony Burgess explored in A Clockwork Orange. In 1971, Ralph Gable reportedly announced in a Harvard lecture that he was “no longer even willing to reveal his ideas” about electronic monitoring to others because of the “extreme criticism” to which he’d been subjected.

Nonetheless, the Gable brothers continued to explore the possibilities of electronic monitoring. In the late 1960s, Robert moved to southern California and, in collaboration with a colleague named Richard Bird, developed a monitoring system that featured “a belt-mounted transceiver that was capable of sending and receiving tactile signals.” (That is, it vibrated like today’s cellphones.)

In the 1980s, Ralph experimented with a system that Robert would later liken to “Bluetooth AA.” Relying in part on a computer bulletin board, participants would monitor each other, provide encouragement at key moments, and engage in “planned and unplanned beneficial social interactions” designed to reinforce positive behaviors.

By this time, the approach pioneered by NIMCOS had already gained substantial traction in the corrections world and the general perception of electronic monitoring had been established: It was a virtual jail, an authoritarian tool designed to enforce compliance with whatever rules those under supervision had been directed to follow. 

In publications like Federal Probation and the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, however, the Gables stayed true to their vision of a kinder, gentler vision of electronic monitoring—and one, they believed, that would result in greater net benefits to society. “An essential tenet of learning theory is that punishment does not change behavior; it temporarily suppresses it,” they wrote in a 2005 issue of Federal Probation. “A person may conform to rules to avoid punishment, but once the threat of punishment is removed, the original behavior is likely to reoccur.”

A truly effective electronic monitoring system, they suggested, would reward small improvements. To keep participants sufficiently motivated over time, it would offer incentives of varying value for instances of improvement, and award these incentives on a varying schedule. The system would also feature two-way communication and incorporate active interventions designed to prevent potential violations.  

Thus, if a participant attends a job-training class, he might be rewarded with a letter of commendation. If he shows up for his drug treatment meeting, he might get free movie tickets. If he gets on a bus and appears to be heading toward the bar where his former partners in crime tend to congregate, other participants in the system might text him in an effort to dissuade him. “With the ubiquity of the connections now, all of the Wi-Fi spots, you could really start to do some positive monitoring,” Gable says.

Rewarding individuals in the course of what is generally considered their punishment is one major reason the Gables’ vision of electronic monitoring has failed to catch on. “I’ve been accused of giving cookies to gang members,” he says.

And yet if the Gables’ vision of electronic monitoring is ever going to have a moment, that moment is now. What is the Internet, after all, except a giant electronic monitoring system issuing positive reinforcement in the form of Facebook “likes,” Twitter retweets, and foursquare badges?

Every day, thousands of people publish information about themselves online—what they weigh, how many miles they ran, how many words of their novel they wrote—in the hope that such transparency, along with the support from friends and strangers it engenders, will reinforce positive behaviors and discourage non-productive ones.

If Facebook had introduced a “Dislike” button instead of the “Like” button, its users would post far less often than they do. If the foursquare app on your smartphone tried to discourage you from checking into certain locations by issuing a tiny shock when you did, how many people would use it?

As fast as the correction system’s version of electronic monitoring has grown over the last two decades, Facebook, Twitter, and other less overt forms of electronic monitoring have grown even faster—and they’ve done it in part by avidly incorporating mechanisms for positive reinforcement into to their systems. That the corrections industry has largely ignored this approach may not rise to the level of a crime, but it sure seems like a missed opportunity.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.

Editor's Note: This article originally stated that BI, Inc. was first known as Boulder Industries. The company has always been called BI, Inc.