Tracking Devices Alone Can’t Fix Philly’s Prison Problem

There are big advantages, but electronic monitoring devices should also sound alarms.


Our new Mayor, Jim Kenney, has already joined a chorus of voices taking on Philadelphia’s crowded prisons. But one solution the city’s looking toward — electronic monitoring devices — should sound some alarms.

An electronic monitor (EM) is usually an ankle bracelet connected to an electronic box that tracks the wearer’s location, at different levels of detail depending on the technology. As Philadelphia and other big incarceration centers look to reduce the huge costs and inhumane practices linked to mass imprisonment, EMs have gotten good press as a prison alternative. Last year, NewsWorks reported Judge Kevin Dougherty — one of two Philadelphia-area judges elected this week to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — praising electronic monitoring of juveniles on house arrest. Just this week, a spokesman for the city’s judicial district told the Daily News that the district will add 1,200 more EMs to cut the jail population.

There are two frequently cited advantages of EMs as a prison alternative. First, and most obvious, they’re supposed to keep people out of prison for minor offenses and so allow more humane policing of offenders, while reducing strain on overstuffed prisons. Second, they’re supposed to be far cheaper than incarceration, which nationally costs taxpayers an average of over $30,000 a year per inmate.

Before getting to the holes in those two claims, it’s important to note that EMs only address one level of many factors behind mass incarceration in the U.S. They don’t speak to elements of the justice system that play a role before conviction and after incarceration, from problematic stop-and-frisk practices to inadequate societal reentry programs. So even at best, EMs can’t be viewed as a “key” to fixing a broken prison system. They’d be a practical, quick-to-implement means of cutting numbers and costs in prisons.

But even at that level, we don’t have reason to be entirely optimistic. A report released last month by incarceration researcher and activist James Kilgore highlights a number of reasons why. For one thing, even though the costs of actual EMs are much lower than those of imprisonment, they create new costs for administering the systems and data collection. To offset those costs, some districts end up charging offenders “user fees.” As reported in the International Business Times, those who can’t afford those fees go back to jail.

Unlike other parts of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s prison system does not currently charge people for monitors. But it’s no stretch to wonder if they may eventually have to as monitors become more widespread, and stable or increasing staffing costs counterbalance the savings of monitoring compared to imprisonment.

And of course, more monitors that could turn profit from user fees are a ripe target for big business. A well-documented feature of the American prison system — about as glaring as the racial disparities — is that it makes a whole lot of money for big companies. Hence the “prison-industrial complex” — to acknowledge that companies behind for-profit prisons, as well as other incarceration resources and technologies, have major financial stakes in imprisonment and monitoring.

Adding to that, with low levels of social protection, inmates are an easy population to exploit for profit. That’s clear whether Pennsylvania youth in correctional facilities are over-prescribed psychiatric medication while the state government foots the bill, or companies try to charge inmates $14/minute to make calls. If EM use is set to expand, we can’t be blind to the ways it could be abused as a moneymaker.

At their root, these problems are a reminder that any single policy tool, like EMs, stays tied to broader issues plaguing the criminal justice system. Those issues include commercial interests miles away from keeping communities safe or protecting human rights in prisons.  They also include the prison system’s tendency to punish the poor, demonstrated by EM user fees. Kilgore’s report further identifies concerns unique to EM technology, such as ways collected data could be used unethically to profile people who have worn the devices.

Philadelphia’s historically high incarceration rate has gone down overall since a 2008 peak, a trend the city wants and needs to continue. For EMs to be a part of that and have a positive long-term impact, they have to be implemented with great caution — and with attention to the bigger issues at play.

Follow @elenagooray on Twitter.