Electronic Monitors: How Companies Dream of Locking Us in Our Homes

These are the corporations profiting from e-carceration.

James Kilgore

Eighteen-month-old Anibal Jurado, waiting with members of the Mountain View Friends Meeting and the Sanctuary collation while his mother Ingrid Encalada Latorre has her ankle monitor fitted and activated at BI Incorporated in Greenwood Village so she can live with her family during her stay of deportation. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Despite the law-and-order offen­sive of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions, the momen­tum for decarcer­a­tion and end­ing cash bail con­tin­ues to grow. This is cause for opti­mism. How­ev­er, decarcer­a­tion may not ulti­mate­ly mean free­dom. In many cas­es, wel­com­ing arms are wait­ing for those com­ing out of prison gates, ready to strap plas­tic GPS shack­les around their ankles. The num­ber of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing (EM) devices in the Unit­ed States has more than dou­bled in the past decade. This means decarcer­a­tion may presage a mas­sive shift of the costs of incar­cer­a­tion onto fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, and the trans­for­ma­tion of the nation’s cor­rec­tion­al sys­tem from pub­lic con­trol to pri­vate com­pa­nies. Activist Rebec­ca Brown, the direc­tor of Reen­try Solu­tions Group and a keen ana­lyst of mon­i­tor­ing, told In These Times, Rather than advanc­ing a more equi­table and effec­tive crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, elec­tron­ic monitoring’s enor­mous and unchecked capac­i­ties trans­form entire com­mu­ni­ties into open-air jails, inten­tion­al­ly depriv­ing a whole class of peo­ple of lib­er­ty and pri­va­cy even as its effi­ca­cy, neces­si­ty and appro­pri­ate­ness go entire­ly unchal­lenged.” Wel­come to the era of e‑carceration, and carcer­al conglomerates.

Carceral conglomerates like BI and Securus are on the move. Their continued growth poses serious challenges for activists fighting against mass incarceration.

Let’s track that lit­tle canary with a cou­ple of exam­ples. State author­i­ties in Ohio are imple­ment­ing Tar­get­ed Com­mu­ni­ty Alter­na­tives to Prison (T‑CAP) to reduce prison pop­u­la­tions. But these peo­ple will not be free.” T‑Cap will force peo­ple with low-lev­el felonies to do their time in coun­ty jails or be fit­ted with EM devices. In oth­er states, the use of EM dur­ing parole is mush­room­ing. In New York, accord­ing to a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act query, the num­ber of elec­tron­i­cal­ly mon­i­tored peo­ple on parole has increased more than 2.5 times since 2010

The law-and-order agen­da of the Trump-Ses­sions régime also has EM spin­offs, with over­flow pop­u­la­tions from immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters increas­ing­ly being placed on what Span­ish-speak­ers refer to as the gril­lete” (shack­le). A par­al­lel process has occurred in juve­nile jus­tice where, accord­ing to a 2017 report by UC Berkeley’s Samuel­son Law Clin­ic and East Bay Com­mu­ni­ty Law Cen­ter, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant changes in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem in recent decades has been the pro­lif­er­a­tion of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing of youth.”

Pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­nies are the main providers of EM devices and mon­i­tor­ing tech­nol­o­gy. Crit­ics of mass-incar­cer­a­tion are famil­iar with the (often overblown) threats of pri­vate pris­ons. If we trace the growth of EM back to the com­pa­nies that sell, main­tain and sur­veille those ankle shack­les, we dis­cov­er the growth of a new par­al­lel cor­rec­tion­al sys­tem that has been qui­et­ly build­ing over the last decade. A recent report by the Urban Jus­tice Cen­ter and Cor­rec­tions Account­abil­i­ty Project pro­vides use­ful data to out­line this process. While the scale of state oper­a­tions in the prison indus­tri­al com­plex still dwarfs the pro­file of pri­vate oper­a­tors, carcer­al con­glom­er­ates are reach­ing into new areas, deliv­er­ing new prod­ucts and ser­vices.” These com­pa­nies’ activ­i­ties not only crowd out state enti­ties at times, but also fur­ther insert prof­it-dri­ven prac­tices into a pub­lic-sec­tor ethos already large­ly dom­i­nat­ed by neolib­er­al values.

Carcer­al Conglomerates

BI Incor­po­rat­ed and Secu­rus Tech­nolo­gies are the two largest providers of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing devices in the Unit­ed States. With long his­to­ries of uneth­i­cal prof­i­teer­ing and abuse of crim­i­nal­ized pop­u­la­tions, both have also been the tar­gets of con­sid­er­able protest and lit­i­ga­tion.

While pres­sure for reform has grown, there’s also been a sea change in the oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sent­ed to these firms to raid and pri­va­tize the ser­vices of pub­lic cor­rec­tions. With new friends on Capi­tol Hill and in the White House, firms like BI and Secu­rus are pulling pieces out of the very heart of the pub­lic prison-indus­tri­al com­plex and reshap­ing them for pri­vate prof­it. And they’re mak­ing it sound like an exer­cise in human­ism: carcer­al human­ism, that is. 

BI Incor­po­rat­ed

Found­ed in 1978, Col­orado-based BI Incor­po­rat­ed is like­ly the largest oper­a­tor in the EM sec­tor, con­trol­ling about 30 per­cent of the nation’s mon­i­tor­ing devices, accord­ing to the com­pa­ny. In 2011, BI was bought out by GEO Group, the world’s largest pri­vate prison oper­a­tor. Under the ban­ner, We believe that every human being should be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty and that his or her basic human rights should be respect­ed and pre­served at all times,” the GEO Group’s largest divi­sion, GEO Cor­rec­tions, runs 141 pris­ons, deten­tion cen­ters and com­mu­ni­ty reen­try facil­i­ties” hold­ing up to 96,000 peo­ple, includ­ing its inter­na­tion­al oper­a­tions in the Unit­ed King­dom, Aus­tralia and South Africa. The GEO Group is also a prime mover in find­ing new ways to mon­e­tize cor­rec­tions. In 2013 it secured Real Estate Invest­ment Trust (REIT) sta­tus, which grants com­pa­nies the abil­i­ty to write off tax­es on income that comes from rentals, if 75 per­cent or more of their rev­enue comes from rent. The GEO Group claims that pay­ments from gov­ern­ment enti­ties to keep peo­ple behind bars con­sti­tute rental income and there­fore are tax exempt. 

With­in the GEO Group, BI is housed in the Orwellian GEO Care divi­sion. Cre­at­ing a sug­ary-sweet car­ing” unit has also opened up new mar­kets and prod­uct oppor­tu­ni­ties for the GEO Group beyond EM. The GEO Group pro­motes a con­tin­u­um of care” through which it offers class­es, treat­ment and work­shops inside pris­ons, as well as tran­si­tion hous­es, elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing and day-report­ing cen­ters for those who leave prison — a wrap­around carcer­al ser­vice. This pro­gram received the annu­al Inno­va­tion in Cor­rec­tions Award of the Amer­i­can Cor­rec­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion” in 2018 for its work at Graceville Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty in Flori­da. Anoth­er key com­po­nent of the con­tin­u­um is the GEO Group’s 2014 open­ing of a gen­der respon­sive prison for women in McFar­land, Cal­i­for­nia. The BI web­site offers a link to GEO Reen­try ser­vices, which pro­vide poten­tial clients with work­shops and cours­es whole­some­ly pack­aged as evi­dence-based pro­gram­ming.”

As a com­pa­ny, BI reflects the dual approach of the GEO Group over­all: care and cor­rec­tions oper­a­tions. BI has mon­i­tor­ing con­tracts for tens of thou­sands of peo­ple with state depart­ments of cor­rec­tions in at least nine states, includ­ing Illi­nois, Wis­con­sin, New Mex­i­co and Arkansas. It also has agree­ments to pro­vide oth­er com­pli­ance tech­nolo­gies,” such as alco­hol mon­i­tor­ing devices, voice ver­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tems and mobile per­son­al sur­veil­lance appli­ca­tions. How­ev­er, its largest rev­enue stream now comes from Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE). While the par­ent GEO Group has been busy build­ing Immi­grant Deten­tion Cen­ters in sup­port of the Trump agen­da, BI has been devel­op­ing sur­veil­lance sys­tems for immi­grants. BI’s Inten­sive Super­vi­sion and Appear­ance Pro­gram (ISAP) includes var­i­ous forms of com­mu­ni­ty super­vi­sion for about 70,000 immi­grants. Though pre­cise fig­ures are not avail­able, like­ly about half of those are on GPS mon­i­tors. ISAP con­tracts have brought at least $600 mil­lion into BI coffers.

Orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly posi­tion­ing BI in the busi­ness of car­ing” pro­motes the notion that elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing and house arrest are dif­fer­ent from pub­lic mass incar­cer­a­tion, con­sti­tut­ing soft­er, nicer approach­es to crim­i­nal jus­tice. In fact, many peo­ple who have been on elec­tron­ic mon­i­tors agree with John­ny Page’s assess­ment. After more than 20 years in Illi­nois pris­ons, Page came home to an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor. The rules were so con­fin­ing, he told In These Times, It’s like being locked up but you’re pay­ing your own bills. You get to feed your­self, you don’t have to fight for the tele­phone, you don’t have to fight for the show­er, but you’re still in jail.”

Secu­rus

Secu­rus, like­ly the sec­ond-largest EM provider in the Unit­ed States, rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent mod­el of cor­po­rate con­glom­er­ate. Formed in 2004 by HIG Cap­i­tal via a merg­er between T‑Netix and Ever­com, Secu­rus’ core busi­ness has been prison and jail phone sys­tems. By 2015, it was oper­at­ing in 2,200 pris­ons and jails, prof­it­ing from 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple behind bars. Secu­rus first entered the EM mar­ket­place in 2013 by acquir­ing mar­ket giant Satel­lite Track­ing of Peo­ple (STOP). At the time, STOP held the largest sin­gle mon­i­tor­ing con­tract in the coun­try, and it con­tin­ues to prof­it from elec­tron­i­cal­ly mon­i­tor­ing morethan 6,000 peo­ple for the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions andReha­bil­i­ta­tion. Secu­rus still holds the Cal­i­for­nia con­tract and pro­vides EM ser­vices to ten oth­er states includ­ing Ten­nessee, Maine and Oregon.

Secu­rus has also been a leader in diver­si­fy­ing its involve­ment in the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex. In 2013, the com­pa­ny acquired jail man­age­ment sys­tem spe­cial­ist Archonix. Oth­er acqui­si­tions include the 2014 addi­tion of Job­View, pro­duc­er of job search kiosks used inside pris­ons; the 2015 pur­chase of JPay, an online prison por­tal for carcer­al finan­cial trans­ac­tions like deposit­ing funds in phone and com­mis­sary accounts for incar­cer­at­ed loved ones; the 2018 takeover of Gov​Pay​.net, a por­tal for online pay­ment of courts fines and fees; and the 2016 pur­chase of Wire­less Con­tain­ment Solu­tions, cre­ator of Cell Defend­er” — a plat­form that blocks cell­phone calls from inside prisons. 

While the GEO Group func­tions more like a par­al­lel Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, Secu­rus sits at the apex of a grow­ing carcer­al net­work that uses tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion to mon­e­tize ser­vices that were either pre­vi­ous­ly not pro­vid­ed in jails and pris­ons (video vis­i­ta­tion and email) or were pro­vid­ed by the state (phones, fee col­lec­tion and man­ag­ing com­mis­sary finances). Secu­rus sub­sidiaries also pro­vide plat­forms for prison record keep­ing and oth­er admin­is­tra­tive functions. 

At a finan­cial lev­el, the strate­gies of both these con­glom­er­ates have been strik­ing­ly suc­cess­ful. The GEO Group’s expan­sion has been dra­mat­ic, almost dou­bling rev­enue from 2010 ($1.2 bil­lion) to 2017 ($2.2 bil­lion). The source of its rev­enue shift­ed as the share of the GEO Care unit grew from 17 per­cent to 22 per­cent while that of GEO Cor­rec­tions fell by 4 percent.

From 2014 to 2016, Secu­rus’ rev­enue grew from $404 mil­lion to $583 mil­lion, an increase of 44 per­cent, mak­ing the com­pa­ny itself an increas­ing­ly attrac­tive acqui­si­tion. Over the course of six years, Secu­rus changed hands three times. In 2011, Cas­tle Har­lan bought the com­pa­ny for an esti­mat­ed $440 mil­lion, then sold it to to Abry Part­ners for $640 in 2013, which put it into the hands of Plat­inum Equi­ty for $1.5 bil­lion in 2017.

E‑carceration: The next challenge

Carcer­al con­glom­er­ates like BI and Secu­rus are on the move. Their con­tin­ued growth pos­es seri­ous chal­lenges for activists fight­ing against mass incarceration. 

If the pres­sure for decarcer­a­tion is invis­i­bly linked, as it is now, with the expan­sion of EM, one unfor­tu­nate result could be exten­sive e‑carceration”: the depri­va­tion of lib­er­ty by means of pri­vate­ly-run tech­nol­o­gy rather than pub­licly main­tained walls and bars. E‑carceration shifts the site and costs of incar­cer­a­tion from state facil­i­ties to vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties of col­or which have already been dec­i­mat­ed by mass impris­on­ment. EM with con­di­tions of house arrest is the most com­mon form of e‑carceration in oper­a­tion today, but the advance of the sur­veil­lance state and the rapid evo­lu­tion of track­ing tech­nol­o­gy open the door to a num­ber of oth­er equal­ly wor­ry­ing scenarios. 

A per­son may be con­fined to a neigh­bor­hood, a block or a house via devices indi­vid­u­al­ly pro­grammed for vary­ing lev­els of con­trol, depend­ing on the risk assess­ment” of that indi­vid­ual. This is already hap­pen­ing with exclu­sion zones pro­grammed into the ankle mon­i­tors of some indi­vid­u­als with sex offense or gang his­to­ries. In New York City, some alleged gang mem­bers are cur­rent­ly put on a GPS mon­i­tor with­out house arrest. The device is pro­grammed to keep them out of cer­tain parts of the city at cer­tain times of the day.

Pri­va­cy is also a cen­tral con­cern. GPS mon­i­tors, which make up 70 per­cent of devices cur­rent­ly in oper­a­tion in the Unit­ed States, store loca­tion track­ing data. At present, the stor­age and dis­pos­al of that data are almost entire­ly unreg­u­lat­ed in the Unit­ed States. In Ger­many author­i­ties are required to delete track­ing data with­in in two months. In the Unit­ed States, some elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing con­tracts with STOP call for keep­ing the data for a min­i­mum of sev­en years. Giv­en the recent rev­e­la­tions of leaks of data from Face­book, as well as the hack of 70 mil­lion records of Secu­rus Tech­nolo­gies in 2015, any expan­sion of e‑carceration with­out more rig­or­ous usage guide­lines and the imple­men­ta­tion of trans­par­ent dig­i­tal secu­ri­ty sys­tems rais­es a num­ber of alarms.

In the field of re-entry, deep­er involve­ment of firms like GEO Care into sys­tems of com­mu­ni­ty-based super­vi­sion will doubt­less increase fees for elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing, as well as add more manda­to­ry com­po­nents that require pay­ment. Many of these costs are already imposed on indi­vid­u­als under super­vi­sion, who pay for things like drug test­ing, com­pul­so­ry anger man­age­ment cours­es and gen­er­al super­vi­sion fees. Not only do these regimes increase costs for the per­son, but the entrance of carcer­al con­glom­er­ates into the reen­try field blocks com­mu­ni­ty-based ini­tia­tives that are more like­ly to be suc­cess­ful at a low­er cost.

These devel­op­ments have seri­ous impli­ca­tions for move­ments fight­ing for decarcer­a­tion. The con­di­tions of indi­vid­u­als who are released need to be care­ful­ly watched. Decarcer­a­tion that only lands indi­vid­u­als under restric­tive and cost­ly house arrest, for exam­ple, is an out­come to be avoid­ed. Get­ting peo­ple out of prison and jails in ways that enhance the pow­er and prof­it of com­pa­nies like Secu­rus and the GEO Group could be a step back­wards in the long run. 

Orga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try have staged hero­ic resis­tance to these com­pa­nies in the past. Activists have pre­vent­ed the GEO Group from build­ing new pris­ons by expos­ing the vio­lence and abuse that has been ram­pant in its facil­i­ties. Sim­i­lar­ly, incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple and their loved ones joined a mass cam­paign in 2015 and 2016 to curb the abu­sive rates and fees for prison phone calls that were charged by Secu­rus. The next stage of this strug­gle will require a new form of vig­i­lance about the increas­ing dan­gers of e‑carceration and the prof­it-mak­ing strate­gies of carcer­al con­glom­er­ates like BI, the GEO Group and Secu­rus work­ing in tan­dem with increas­ing­ly cor­po­ra­tized depart­ments of corrections.

James Kil­go­re is a for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed activist and researcher based in Urbana, Illi­nois. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Under­stand­ing Mass Incar­cer­a­tion: A People’s Guide to the Key Civ­il Rights Strug­gle of Our Time. He is cur­rent­ly a Soros Jus­tice Fel­low whose work involves build­ing a cam­paign, Chal­leng­ing E‑Carceration, which is focused on the issue of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing. He can be reached at waazn1@​gmail.​com or @waazn1. He would like to thank Ter­ri Barnes and Emmett Sanders for their work on this article.
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