They're "The Man"

Staffers at General Security see their ankle-bracelet-wearing charges when they're sleeping, and they know when they're awake

Linda McGee goes to work, and voilà, she becomes a pair of eyes for The Man. As an operator for Bloomington-based General Security Services Corporation (GSSC), McGee's job is to keep tabs on people who wear court-mandated ankle bracelets.

Every 20 or 30 seconds, each bracelet emits an audible radio-frequency signal, which in turn is picked up by a laptop-size receiver wired to the wearer's home phone. If the bracelet goes beyond its specified range (typically 150 feet), the receiver immediately barges its way onto the phone line and electronically rats on its host. The report hits McGee's computer in less than a minute. (There's now also a parallel technology that sends a beep to a receiver in a victim's home when a known stalker violates a prescribed range.)

McGee clicks her mouse a few times. Uh-oh: Jeanette, a juvenile in Los Angeles, is out of range--for the fourth time today. (The offender's name has been changed for privacy reasons.) McGee pages Jeanette's parole officer, then dials the girl's house: "This is the monitoring center," she says in a businesslike tone. "My computer shows that Jeanette's not there. Can you tell me where she went? Uh-huh? Okay. Thank you." She types into her computer: "Location stated client was in back yard cleaning." Her report, noting the client's name and data, the yard-cleaning explanation, and the time of the violation, will be printed out and faxed to Jeanette's parole officer. "That way," explains McGee, "if she says she was taking some papers to school, he'll know what we heard from home."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, last year nearly three percent of all the adults on parole, probation, or out-of-jail sentencing were tracked via electronic monitoring. (At this time, no comparable figures are maintained regarding juveniles.) And if someone in the United States is wearing an ankle bracelet, there's a good chance it's wired to McGee or one of her colleagues in the five cubicles at GSSC, whose nondescript, gray-carpeted offices house the second-largest such monitoring center in the nation. (The biggest firm, and GSSC's main competitor, is Boulder, Colorado-based BI, Inc.) Jeanette's ankle bracelet is supplied by the L.A. juvenile court system, one of nearly 200 government entities--including several Minnesota counties, though not Hennepin or Ramsey--that contract with GSSC. The company's client list also includes a dozen or so private firms that run halfway houses and the like. While most states tag the bracelets on low-risk offenders, Minnesota also uses the technology for a small percentage of state prisoners who are serving a portion of their sentence under community supervision.

Just as use varies from state to state, it also varies from county to county, city to city, region to region. "But one thing that everybody agrees on is that it saves money," boasts Steve Ayers, a contract administrator for GSSC. A state prison cell costs taxpayers $45 a day, versus an average of $5 a day for electronic monitoring. And according to Ayers, monitoring typically yields a success rate in the 80 percent range. "That doesn't mean that they turn into nice people," he qualifies. "It doesn't mean that they have no violations or that they're sober. But they completed the program--were continually monitored without being returned to custody."

Ayers's circumspection is born of firsthand knowledge. Having worked as a probation officer in St. Louis for 20 years before moving to Minnesota five years ago to work for General Security, he knows the technology, and the loopholes. These days, for example, an alarm signal is phoned in if a receiver gets unplugged. "When it first started, if I were wearing a bracelet I could unplug the receiver, take it over to my girlfriend's house," Ayers explains. "Now, if it's even tilted, our computers get a message. So we call, and let's say he just bumped the thing. It's like we're God: He's thinking, 'How did they know that?'"

Another early rap, Ayers continues, is that an offender is home but drunk, in violation of the conditions of his confinement. "So we have phones that can sense alcohol on the breath." The bracelets themselves used to be colored plastic--similar to those worn by patients in hospitals--fairly easily tampered with because they could be cut or slipped off. Now, he says, "There's electronic circuitry all through the thing that can detect any tampering." And, like the early pacemaker or the first computers, at first the box attached to the bracelets was somewhat big and bulky. "They're pretty small now," Ayers notes, lifting a beeper-size sample from his spotless desk. "But they might not get much smaller," he adds. "It's been shown that there's a psychological effect to having something visible on the ankle."

At this Ayers launches into a story about the origins of the ankle bracelet: In 1977 a New Mexico District Court judge named Jack Love read a Spider-Man comic book in which a villain forced Spidey to wear a special tracking bracelet. Eureka! After unsuccessfully lobbying his state's corrections department, Love went looking for developers. By 1983 he had a worthy prototype and began ordering bracelet use for offenders who came before his bench. As prison overcrowding increased, the invention took off. "Others had tried electronic monitoring before," Ayers says, "but Judge Love's was one of the first, and he often gets full credit because the tale is so good."

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