They're "The Man"

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."

In real life the technology is beginning to fulfill the comic-book villain's intent. Some recently developed devices use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology that can pinpoint an offender's location within feet. There are also cameras that can be connected to a home phone line; the offender is called at random times of the day and must stand in front of the camera to be identified. (This system has been employed to keep track of alleged Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist and St. Paul mom Sara Jane Olson during her pretrial house arrest.)

Back in the monitoring room, McGee and another operator, Claire Kuczek, are dealing with the back-to-school busy season. Juveniles' schedules need to be reprogrammed so they can further their education without setting off alarms. Probation officers frequently call the center and give schedule updates. (Over holidays, visits to relatives are programmed in.) Each night the GSSC staffers' work is faxed out in the form of reports that give clients a detailed rundown of every offender's "ins and outs" during the previous 24 hours.

As they work, Kuczek and McGee swap stories about what they've heard from juveniles. The technology might be more sophisticated, but kids' excuses haven't changed much through the ages, and it's largely Leave It to Beaver-type stuff. The most popular line this time of year is "I missed the bus." Kuczek had a kid who said he left his house "because it was so hot he had to go get an orange soda." Counters McGee: "I had one who said, 'I was out bowling with my grandma.' It was 2:00 a.m. Either Grandma was really hip or he was lying." McGee has had bracelet wearers go into labor on her watch; just recently, she says, she interceded with a parole officer: "Pat says she needs to go to the store and get Pampers for her baby." The officer said okay.

Behind them, a co-worker monitors a computer that's calling out to test alcohol levels. To their left, another computer is randomly telephoning juveniles to double-check that they're at home, employing a voice-verification system that asks the offender to repeat numbers or names of states until the sounds match up with a voice "template" that's on file. The computer updates the template over time--crucial for keeping track of boys going through puberty. "Kids like to test the limits. You know, 'Here, you do it,' so it's not completely foolproof," Steve Ayers explains. "It can't adjust for every condition, either. If someone wakes up croaking, he's out of luck, because then we call in humans."

And so it emerges: Though they've boiled it down to a nearly automated science, humans are still the key. "You'll get in big trouble if you try to let a box do your work for you," Ayers says. "We almost lost the monitoring program in St. Louis when some Young Turk went out and shot someone."

No solution, it seems, is perfect. Aside from the technological shortcomings, there are the predictable philosophical issues. "Conservatives say, 'We're being too soft; we should lock 'em all up.' Liberals say, 'It's Big Brother,'" sums up Ayers. The offenders themselves have been known to complain, too. Having personally tried out the equipment, Ayers can sympathize: "You can't leave the house to do errands. You get called in the middle of the night. And if you make a mistake and violate, it's like adding a teenager to your house: The receiver gets on the phone and makes noises that get louder until you have to get off that phone. You don't like it, your wife doesn't like it, your kids don't like it.

"When I was in St. Louis," he continues, "I had guys bring in their equipment and say, 'Put me in jail.' I'd say, 'Too bad, it's not a hotel; you can't request a bunk. You'll have to stick it out.'"

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