The Big Brother solution

JONATHAN HARRIS March 25 1996

The Big Brother solution

JONATHAN HARRIS March 25 1996

The Big Brother solution

Faced with overcrowding in prisons and rising costs of incarceration, correctional service officials are increasingly turning to a rather Orwellian alternative—transforming the convict’s own home into a virtual cell through electronic monitoring,

or EM. The system relies on a small bracelet attached to a parolee’s or offender’s ankle, and radio-linked to an in-home monitoring device. If the offender leaves his house, corrections personnel at a monitoring centre are immediately alerted by an automated call made through the bracelet-wearer’s phone line.

Newfoundland, Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the Yukon are now using EM programs as a form of house arrest—most commonly for relatively low-risk criminals, such as those convicted of drunk driving or property offences.

“We are not putting hard-core people out there,” says Jim Cairns, a program analyst for the corrections department of British Columbia, where almost 20 per cent of people serving provincial sentences wear the bracelets. One benefit of EM

programs is that they save money. Eric Caton, president of Jemtec Inc., a Canadian distributor of the Boulder, Colo.-produced technology, says that it costs about $5 a day to lease an EM system—far cheaper than putting people in prisons or halfway houses. In fact, the Ontario ministry of correctional services says it will save between $7 million and $10 million per year

by eliminating halfway houses and replacing them with EM equipment. And in British Columbia, where EM has been used since 1987, it has helped relieve overcrowding in the province’s jails. “Electronic monitoring,” says Cairns, “has been a blessing in allowing us to try and balance overcrowding.”

EM technology may also have applications in the federal parole system. This month, the Correctional Service of Canada will

begin testing EM as a way to help enforce curfews for a select group of parolees in interior British Columbia. The purpose, says project director James Bartlett, is to “provide a more intense level of supervision.” If successful, the B.C. trial might lead to a national program of electronic parolee monitoring. “Parole on the federal level is one obvious place where this technology should be used,” says John Ekstedt, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “With the federal prison system so overcrowded, electronic monitoring provides a means of securing greater release [of parolees] through stricter control.”

Still, Bartlett warns, “all EM does is tell you where a guy is. It doesn’t serve any rehabilitative functions.” And it cannot stop offenders from

breaking the law at home—by taking drugs, for instance. “It is not 100-per-cent foolproof,” says Cairns, “but it is very reliable.” Whether the small ankle bracelet is reliable enough to quell the public’s fears is another matter.

JONATHAN HARRIS