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Chain Gang 2.0: If You Can’t Afford This GPS Ankle Bracelet, You Get Thrown In Jail

by Eric Markowitz, International Business Times

On a recent broiling August day, Antonio Green, an out-of-work construction worker, sat in his living room, a folder full of receipts open across his legs. He explained how an electronic monitor, strapped to his left ankle for a period of 275 days beginning last fall, sent him into debt and nearly wrecked his life.

It’s widely known that an increasingly privatized criminal justice system makes money off poor people. But Green found himself in the latest for-profit craze: GPS tracking.

It all started with a traffic violation. Green, a 49-year-old father of five from Lugoff, South Carolina, about 30 miles northeast of Columbia, acknowledged that he shouldn’t have been driving at all. He didn’t have a license. But last October, his mother’s car, a 1994 Chrysler, had broken down at a nearby Taco Bell. So he hitched a ride to go retrieve it for her. 

On his way home while driving his mother’s car, he failed to use his turn signal at an intersection, and a local police officer pulled him over. 

Green was arrested, placed in handcuffs and taken down to the local county jail, where he waited overnight until his elderly mother was able to post the $2,100 to bail him out. A condition of Green’s bail, ordered by the judge, was that Green wear – and pay for – an electronic monitoring device.

Green, who lives on a monthly $900 disability check, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Pay for it?” Green said. “I never heard of that.”

But he was indeed hearing correctly. In Richland County, South Carolina, any person ordered to wear the ankle monitor as a condition of their bail must lease the bracelet from a private, for-profit company called Offender Management Services (OMS), which charges the offender $9.25 per day, or about $300 per month, plus a $179.50 set-up fee, according to county documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by International Business Times.

This arrangement reflects an opportunistic pitch by prison-oriented technology companies that has found favor with budget-minded government officials. In effect, companies like OMS have allowed municipalities like Richland County to save the costs of monitoring offenders by having the offenders pay themselves. The county wins, the company wins and people like Green find themselves confronting additional drains on their limited means.

In Richland County, if offenders don’t – or simply can’t – meet their payments, the company is obliged to contact police in order to “return [the offender] to the custody of the [Richland County] Detention Center,” a public facility.

In other words, if you can’t pay your electronic monitoring bill, you get sent back to jail. 

“The electronic monitoring people are like old-fashioned bounty hunters,” says Jack Duncan, a public defender in Richland County, who says some of his clients have been locked up because they can’t make their payments. “It’s a newfangled debtors’ prison. People are pleading guilty because it’s cheaper to be on probation than it is to be on electronic monitoring.”

Richland County is far from the only county in the United States that requires people to pay for their own tracking. In the last decade, “offender-funded” electronic monitoring programs – as they’re known in the business – have exploded in popularity.

States like Georgia, Arkansas, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania now contract with private, for-profit companies that require individuals to pay for their own tracking, according to analysis of county and state records by IBT. While there is no centralized database on how often states charge defendants for their tracking, from 2000 to 2014 the use of electronic monitoring as alternative to jail detention grew by 32 percent, according to figures provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in a 2014 annual survey of jails. In 2014, NPR conducted a survey that found that in “all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring.”

One industry report now pegs the number of people under electronic monitoring in the United States at 100,000, and that number likely will grow.

Companies routinely use lobbyists – especially at state and local jurisdictions – to establish relationships with officials from local corrections departments. The country’s largest private corrections company, GEO Group, spent $2.5 million in lobbying dollars in 2014, in part for its electronic monitoring efforts, according to company statements. In a nod to the high value of local relationships, GEO noted in company documents that “approximately $0.3 million was for lobbying at the Federal level and approximately $2.2 million was for lobbying at the state and local levels.”

In Richland County, Offender Management Services paid lobbyist Robert Stewart, the retired chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division – an elite unit that holds exclusive authority over state police departments. County records show that in 2013, the year before OMS signed its contract with Richland County, OMS was paying $38,000 per year to Stewart’s consulting firm, Stewart Konduros & Associates – while Stewart himself was serving on a panel for bond reform in Columbia.

Stewart, in an interview, maintained that the panel was composed of several individuals who endorsed a variety of reforms. He also noted that requiring defendants to pay for electronic monitoring was becoming fairly commonplace. “The taxpayers in this state don’t want to have to pay for it,” he said.

And that’s exactly the point.

Over the last 30 years, the United States has become the world’s leading jailer, locking up some 2.2 million people every year. The cost to taxpayers is enormous. President Obama recently pegged the yearly price tag of incarceration at $80 billion per year, a figure that represents both state and federal dollars, with more than 90 percent occurring at the state and local levels. Sensing an opportunity, many companies have swooped in, pitching electronic monitoring programs as an alternative to detention – with the added benefit of being free for taxpayers.

As government agencies look to decrease the financial burden of keeping so many people locked up, the electronic monitoring business appears poised for growth. SuperCom, an Israeli software provider, predicts the industry will balloon to $6 billion in annual revenues by 2018, largely from offender-funded programs.

Clearly, the business is good for businesses and cheaper on taxpayers. But is it fair to charge individuals for their own electronic tracking? Several lawyers interviewed for this story say absolutely not, even though it routinely happens.

 “The business model itself is blatantly illegal,” said Alec Karakatsanis, a lawyer and the co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights organization. “If it were ever challenged in court, it would be struck down immediately.” Cherise Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, agreed, saying that “charging of offenders for their supervision conditions, whether that’s electronic monitoring – all of that is unconstitutional and illegal.” Jack Duncan, the public defender, simply contends that electronic monitoring is “a legal monstrosity.”

Stewart, the lobbyist, won’t comment on the legality of the devices – he says that’s a question the courts should decide – but said that defendants like Antonio Green don’t necessarily have to pay for anything. “They agree to be on it,” he said. “They don’t have to take this. They can say I don’t want to do it.” Saying “no” to the device, however, means going back to jail.

Some local prosecutors say electronic monitoring devices are a pragmatic way to address the reality of prisoners being released in an age of tight government budgets. The ability to track defendants while they await trial, they say, is an important public safety tool.

“OMS provides both professional and effective real-time supervision of individuals on bond as well as direct access of the information to law enforcement,” Dan Johnson, the fifth judicial circuit solicitor in South Carolina, said in an email to IBT.


‘Peak Incarceration’

The electronic monitoring pitch is appealing to state and county governments.

For example, BI, Inc., one of the largest electronic monitoring companies now owned by the private prison behemoth GEO Group, boasts in marketing materials that in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, offender-funded electronic monitoring “has saved the county...more than $40 million in jail bed costs by diverting offenders to community supervision.”

In some states, counties don’t only save money by contracting out the monitoring to private companies – they actually make money from it. For instance, in Mountlake Terrace, a suburb north of Seattle, the city contracts with a small electronic monitoring company, which charges the the town $5.75 “per client.” However, the person placed on electronic monitoring actually pays the city $20 per day, resulting in a net revenue for the city of “approximately $50,000 to $60,000” per year, according to Mountlake Terrace county documents.

“We’re at peak incarceration as a society,” says Karakatsanis. “A lot of these companies are devoting extraordinary efforts to shift their business model and profit off of that growing surveillance and supervision.”

For people like Antonio Green, poor and charged with a low-level crime, the net effect of a for-profit monitoring system goes something like this: Try to find a way to keep paying, or plead guilty and simply go to jail. And that’s exactly what happened.

By August 2015, Green had paid well over $2,500 to OMS.

Green dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, and subsequently worked as a logger, fork lift operator and construction worker. For 16 years, he built homes all around South Carolina, and he loved the work. But a decade ago, while hoisting a wooden plank onto a scaffold, he felt a twinge of pain shoot up his back. Subsequent spinal surgeries left him unable to work. He has debilitating arthritis in both of his hands, and earns about $11,000 per year through monthly disability checks.

After nine months wearing the device, Green had gone broke, racked up debt from overdraft fees, and spiraled into anxiety over his finances. Like many districts around the country, the wheels of justice in Richland County turn slowly. Green faced another year waiting for a trial, all the while paying his monthly electronic monitoring bills.

“I gave up,” Green told me. “I was falling apart. It felt like being on a chain gang. Those bills were getting out of hand. I said, ‘They’re just going to have to lock me up.’”

On Aug. 4, 2015, Green turned himself in. He’d simply run out of money.


Spider-Man Led to Electronic Monitoring

The original idea behind electronic monitoring comes, in many ways, from a fantasy.

In 1977, a district court judge named Jack Love from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was flipping through his favorite comic book: Spider-Man. In one episode, the villain, known as “Kingpin,” slapped a futuristic bracelet onto Spiderman’s wrist. The bracelet allowed Kingpin to watch Spiderman’s every move. This gave Judge Love an idea: Could an electronic monitor do the same for the defendants that passed through his court?

A few days later, Love wrote to the New Mexico corrections department. In the envelope, he enclosed a copy of the Spider-Man comic strip, recently dug up by comic site BleedingCool. The state ignored Love. But Love, undeterred, contacted Michael Goss, a computer salesman.

Love convinced Goss to quit his job and build a prototype. By 1983, Goss patented his invention: The GOSSlink electronic bracelet. The 4 oz. battery-powered, waterproof anklet was “about the size of a pack of cigarettes,” according to a news story at the time. 

But it wasn’t for another 10 years that defenders would actually have to pay for the device themselves. Throughout the ‘80s, the government bore the burden of paying for anyone placed on electronic monitoring, whether it was assigned to them for probation or pretrial detention. To this day, the federal government continues to pay for any costs associated with electronic monitoring.

But the state courts have taken an alternative approach. One of the first offender-funded models was launched in Los Angeles in 1992, shortly after the Rodney King riots. During those riots, some 11,000 people were arrested. That’s when a private company, Sentinel, stepped in to offer its services to the county’s probation department. (Sentinel did not return request for comment.)

In company documents, Sentinel said the company “pioneered the offender-funded program model.” And in a subsequent case study, the company notedthat the 1992 Los Angeles “program was the nation’s lead offender-funded model.” The company also said that because “this program was so successful, many agencies across the country have capitalized on the Sentinel model and have reaped the benefits.”

Thus, the modern era of electronic monitoring began.

Like many industries, businesses compete for contracts with a mix of lobbying, marketing and old-fashioned schmoozing. Companies routinely pitch their products’ services at trade shows and conferences around the country. “You go to the National Association of Pretrial Services Conference, or the American Parole and Probation Association, and in the vendor room is all this technology for tracking,” says Cherise Burdeen. “They portray it as a great technology, and they tell all these county folks, “This doesn’t cost you anything; the defendant pays for it all!”

While OMS is a relatively small player in the electronic monitoring marketplace, it is part of an industry that has harvested a substantial fortune from an increasingly high-tech prison industry.

“The first rule is follow the money,” says Jack Duncan. “And the big time corporations are the ones who are getting into the business, because there’s a lot of money to be made.”

For instance, OMS leases tracking equipment from Satellite Tracking of People, a Texas company that was purchased in December 2013 by Securus Technologies, a prison technology company valued at well over $1 billion. Part of the pitch to law enforcement is that electronic monitoring enables round-the-clock tracking capabilities. But hosting all that GPS data comes at a price.

According to a balance sheet obtained by IBT, Securus recorded $26.3 million in 2014 revenue from its new “offender monitoring systems” business after its 2013 acquisition.

Other companies have logged impressive figures as well. BI, Inc., the largest electronic monitor provider, was purchased in 2011 for $415 million by the GEO group. And Omnilink, another large purveyor of electronic monitoring services, was recently acquired for $37.5 million. There is also ProTech, developed by 3M, iSecure Trac, G4S, Sentinel Offender Service and Track Group.

Though several companies now operate lucrative mini-empires in the industry, there are few established guidelines on how the devices are actually imposed on users.

“I think that the companies don’t want a clear-cut examination of the legal status of electronic monitoring,” said James Kilgore, a criminal justice researcher and activist who is working on a book about privatized electronic monitoring. “What is it? Where does it fit? Is it incarceration? Is it not incarceration? I don’t think they want that discussion because they want to keep it in this nebulous status so they can market it in as many instances as possible and widen the net.”


The Fear Of Letting People Out On Bail

To understand a bit why Antonio Green – a man arrested for a traffic violation – was placed on electronic monitoring, you first need to go back to a case that he had nothing to do with.

In July 2013, Lorenzo Young, a “documented gang member” was arrested – and later convicted – for the murder of Kelly Hunnewell during an apparent botched robbery at a bakery where Hunnewell worked.

The case received a ton of media attention, partly because Young was out on bond at the time of the murder. In response, Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin created a panel on bond reform to “improve upon and recommend new tools to keep career criminals in jail and off the street.”

“Lorenzo Young never should have gotten out of jail, and now one young woman has lost her life and four small children have lost their mother,” Benjamin said in a statement. “The people of Columbia won’t stand for it, and neither will I.”

Benjamin created a taskforce. The chair of the panel was Robert Stewart, the paid lobbyist for OMS.

Electronic monitoring for defendants out on bail is typically reserved for people charged with violent crimes. But since the tracker program launched in August 2014 – just a couple months before Green’s arrest – judges have made it a condition of bond hundreds of times, often for minor traffic violations or low-level misdemeanors, according to court documents and public defenders.

“They’ve just gone berserk with it,” says Jack Duncan. “It’s gotten out of hand.”

Sam Wiseman, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law who has researched pretrial electronic monitoring extensively, said this “net widening” is common. “Nobody is going to give the [judge] an award for releasing a defendant on his own recognizance,” he says. “That doesn’t make the news. What does make the news, is when someone gets released and goes on to commit a crime.”

There is the argument to be made that offenders who wear the device are more likely to appear for their trial. After all, a “non-negligible percentage of defendants flee despite having posted large bonds,” according to Wiseman. Between 1994 and 2004, he noted, nearly a quarter of all state court felony defendants who released on bail failed to appear at trial.

But critics, especially James Kilgore, say it’s a flimsy argument that electronic monitoring – whether used in a pretrial or probation setting – could ever really have some sort of large-scale, positive societal affect.

“There’s a mythology around the technology, that somehow authorities are in control of individuals who are on electronic monitoring,” says Kilgore. “They’re not in control of them. If someone wants to commit a crime, you can take that bracelet off with a pair of scissors.”


‘A Slap In The Face’

For the nine months Antonio Green wore his BluTag, the device received and recorded his GPS latitude and longitude once a minute, as well as the date and time stamp, the speed at which he traveled and the nearest street address as determined by the U.S. Postal Service. “The receiver and transmitter are housed in a rugged, weatherproof, factory sealed, plastic case,” according to company documents.

Green says that police were dispatched to his house on one occasion – because he forgot to keep the device charged. He said the device didn’t stop him from running from his court date, because he never planned to in the first place. “My dad was a man,” he said. “That’s how he raised me. He said if you go out and get in trouble, face it like a man.”

Green admits he’s not perfect. His license was initially suspended for a DUI, and his arrest record includes a domestic violence charge and disorderly conduct. But he says he’s been turning his life around in the last year, finding odd-jobs and making money where he can. He said he was even saving up money to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend – until the ankle bracelet sent him into debt.

“Me and my girlfriend started having arguments because I couldn’t help her out,’ he told me. “And I started getting overdraft fees; it started getting real tough.” Mr. Green began to cry as he reminisced about all that he lost because of the monitor. “Birthdays, school clothes…It was real tough.” Green said he even had suicidal thoughts. A doctor prescribed him antidepressants.

As fate would have it, when Green appeared at the court, he was informed that his case had actually been thrown out on June 8. In fact, Cox says, the court did not inform Cox nor Green that the case had been dismissed on June 8 until Cox made a Motion to Amend Bond on August 4.

“Unfortunately, he just sort of slipped through the cracks of the judicial system,” said Cox in an interview. In other words, Green was paying his electronic monitoring for two extra months while the court did not actually even care about his whereabouts.

“That,” Cox says, “was just a slap in the face.”

Later that day, OMS removed the ankle bracelet from Green’s leg, making him – at least theoretically – a free man. But it doesn’t always feel that way for Green. “I’ve been living on overdraft,” he said. “I went through all my money.”

He added, “It’s just a rip-off.”

This article was originally published on September 21, 2015 by International Business Times. It is reprinted with permission of the author, with minor edits.

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