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Artificial Intelligence for Surveillance Spreading to Prisons Around the Globe

Artificial Intelligence, long thought to be the wave of the future, has become a present reality in prisons around the globe. Facilities in Hong Kong and China have already established themselves on the cutting edge of “smart” incarceration.

The former has outfitted prisoners with wristbands similar to Fitbits that track location and other data, like heart rates. Other programs slated to begin soon include drug-detecting robots and surveillance systems tasked with flagging abnormal behavior. Yancheng prison in mainland China, meanwhile, has completed construction of its surveillance system that features hidden sensors and cameras in each cell. This data is uploaded daily to a computer that “generates a comprehensive report, including behavior analysis, on each prisoner using different AI functions such as facial identification and movement analysis.”

Tiandy Technologies, the company that created the Chinese system, has claimed its product will eliminate escapes, but it will do more than just monitor every move prisoners make. An inspection by party officials in December 2018 concluded that employees of the facility had not fully understood “its political nature in the new era.” It also determined that guards had violated rules, thus casting doubt on their personal ethics and political loyalty.

The implied threat was that no one was invisible to the new surveillance system, and no action would go unscrutinized. The idea of surveilling prison employees and holding them accountable to legal and professional standards is a truly revolutionary idea.

Critics have raised concerns about subjecting American prisons to the all-seeing Chinese panopticon model. The utter lack of privacy while living 24/7 under the unblinking gaze of cameras could be detrimental to rehabilitation, as would a reduction in human interaction if recording equipment were used to replace guards. Yet this has been the explicit goal of American and English prisons since British social theorist Jeremy Bentham first invented the panopticon prison in the 1780s.

 Prison systems that have succeeded in reducing violence and curbing antisocial behaviors, notably those in Norway and Germany, have done so not through intensive surveillance or control but by returning agency and dignity to the human beings in their care.

Facilities in the United States have so far been reluctant to implement computer-aided surveillance, but AI is being used across the United States to monitor phone calls from prisoners, including data tracking of call recipients and voice printing calls. The technology operates on speech recognition and semantic analysis to search through a database of key words. In order to keep up with regional differences and changes in prison slang, the tech providers embed investigators into correctional units.

When analysis of a phone call detects suspicious language, the company contacts law enforcement. One company, LEO Technologies, claims that in just two years of operation it has uncovered countless contraband smuggling schemes, prevented serious incidents of violence from occurring, and stopped dozens of suicides.

“Taking your life in a penal institution--that’s a huge news story, because we’re there to maintain their health and well-being,” stated Bill Partridge, the Oxford, Alabama police chief. “It [the AI technology] saves taxpayers copious amounts of money and it also helps the family because they don’t have to deal with that situation” he added. The number of suicides in prisons and jails continues to grow and the companies are not providing verifiable evidence to investigate their claims. Price gouging and exploiting prisoners and their families is however easily verifiable and, in the U.S. at least, it is prisoners and their families who are footing the surveillance bill on telephone usage.

LEO Technologies has no fixed price for its services, but its annual fees typically run in excess of $500,000 per unit with a 1,000-prisoner capacity.