Prison Profiteer Is Using Sandra Bland’s Death to Sell Surveillance Technology
by Brian Dolinar
Guardian RFID is a virtually unknown, but rapidly growing, company that sells digital technology to jails. It makes ID cards and bracelets that can be scanned by guards when doing head counts, meal distribution and suicide checks.
Guardian RFID is yet another prison profiteer among the ever-expanding number of companies that operate as what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “parasites,” feeding off of the prison-industrial complex. What is most disturbing about Guardian RFID are its plans for super-surveillance in the carceral environment. Guardian RFID was named by Inc. magazine as the 396th fastest-growing private company in 2021, increasing its revenue by 126 percent in three years. Guardian RFID has been around for 20 years selling its products to jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers. The company claims to provide technology for 75,000 correctional officers, who they call “Warriors” protecting “America’s Thin Gray Line.”
As mass incarceration is adapting to respond to crises of legitimacy, companies like Guardian RFID are always ready to sell new solutions to the problem of how to contain and control people. Emerging technologies present previously unimagined levels of surveillance. This system views humans like numbers, or like bar codes to be scanned and counted, not as individuals with families, histories and a future.
Weapons of Mass Data Collection
Guardian RFID sells high-tech tools that enable tight surveillance in jails. Carceral personnel deploy the hand-held Spartan 3 which is basically an Android phone with apps created for basic jail functions. The Spartan scans ID cards and wristbands worn by those incarcerated. The data is then stored on a remote cloud that, according to a Guardian RFID spokesperson, is “F*#@ing Magic.” The company says it builds artificial intelligence systems with “predictive and prescriptive insights” that will give guards “constant surveillance capabilities.”
Guardian RFID uses slick imagery and hyper-militarized language to sell its products, mostly to sheriffs in rural counties throughout the South, Midwest, and other remote areas of the U.S. where the sheriffs are powerful political figures. As it says on the Guardian RFID website, the Spartan 3 is to work with the speed and precision of a “surgical strike” — like “ISIS strongholds turned to glass.” It is a “weapon of mass data collection.” The goal is achieving “operational dominance,” what is described in further hyperbole as “a powerful synonym for waterboarding” — a form of torture.
Guardian RFID is headquartered in Maple Grove, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. It was founded in 2001 by Ken Dalley, the company’s self-described “Chief Warrior,” a recent finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Heartland Award. Guardian RFID takes pride in being “Warrior led” but it’s not clear whether Dalley was ever a corrections officer. He did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview. The company aims to track “every inmate” and estimates its technology tracks more than 10 percent of people incarcerated in the United States. Guardian RFID wants to “digitally transform” jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers.
Guardian RFID won its first contract in 2005 at the Hardin County Jail in Eldora, Iowa, a 107-bed facility. Located 75 miles north of Des Moines, the jail was until recently best known as the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Iowa for two decades. There, Jail Administrator Nick Whitmore touted the Guardian RFID system for protecting his office from a lawsuit. “If there is an investigation on an assault or suicide occurrence,” said Whitmore, “we’re able to document and prove in court that there was one-on-one contact between the individual detainee and jail guard.”
After the death of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2015, Guardian RFID actively promoted its technology to jails in Texas, attempting to take advantage of reforms made in the wake of national protests. The Sandra Bland Act was passed by legislators in Texas two years after her apparent suicide. Among its requirements was that jails have “automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks.” Guardian RFID lobbied sheriffs in the counties near where Bland died, winning contracts in Fort Bend County, Bezos County and Wharton County, all suburbs of Houston within an hour of the Waller County Jail where she was found hanging in her cell. Guardian RFID’s system was recently installed at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a $20 million technology modernization effort, in part, to “demonstrate continuous compliance” with the Sandra Bland Act. Dallas, Texas, likely signed a million-dollar deal with Guardian RFID to be in accordance with the new state law. On Guardian RFID’s blog, there’s an entire post about the Sandra Bland Act, instructing jails how to maximize “compliance.”
Moreover, Guardian RFID will surely get more contracts after high-profile news stories like the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, where guards fell asleep on the job. A wealthy financier held on federal charges of sex trafficking, Epstein hung himself with a bedsheet at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, which has since been temporarily shuttered due to security and infrastructure issues. Guards were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes the night of his death. As was captured on camera, officers Michael Thomas and Tova Noel left Epstein alone for eight hours while they were napping and shopping online. Authorities charged the pair with falsifying the paper log books — but charges were dropped after the guards performed community service. Guardian RFID argues that its digital system is superior to the old paper method and thus prevents “liabilities.”
One of Guardian RFID’s largest contracts is with Sheriff Marian Brown who runs the Dallas County Jail in Texas, the seventh-largest jail in the U.S. with an average daily population of 6,000 people. The three-year contract, approved on December 15, 2020, was for a total of $1.1 million. The dollar amount for the first year was $477,770, with $391,475 coming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed in March 2020. What carceral surveillance has to do with COVID relief was not articulated in the proposal before the Dallas County Commissioner’s Court. The remainder of the bill — $86,295 — was to be paid from commissions the sheriff makes off the commissary fund, the money that comes from the inflated prices people at the jail pay for personal items like toothpaste, deodorant and socks. The cost was $314,979 for the subsequent two years of the contract. There is big money to be made in selling total surveillance technology.
At the Polk County Jail System in central Florida, Guardian RFID provides the ID tags that are required for everyone in custody who enters through the jail gates. There are nearly 4,000 people incarcerated in three separate jails — Central County Jail, South County Jail and Central Booking. Guardian RFID makes the audacious claim that people “take pride in their ID cards and even feel important having to wear them.” Guardian RFID founder Dalley took a tour of Polk’s modern processing center, what he says is by far the “most impressive and groundbreaking” of its kind. With the help of Guardian RFID technology, Polk’s guards collect 42 million log entries in a year to “automate” compliance with Florida Model Jail Standards, guidelines established by the Florida Sheriff’s Association. But to Guardian RFID, it seems, the thousands of people they tag are not real people. They are just data points.
The massive data collection project at the Polk County Jail did not prevent the death of Shaun Seaman, who on May 13, 2020, was beaten to death while on suicide watch. The guards were supposed to check the cell every 15 minutes, as was protocol, but failed to physically check on Seaman for four and a half hours after the attack. The family filed a civil lawsuit and is being represented by high-profile civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump.
The website for the DeSoto County Adult Detention Facility in Mississippi, says Guardian RFID’s technology is approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), radio frequency levels are similar to those in consumer electronics, and the devices are hypoallergenic. Those who refuse to wear the “non-implantable devices” will be “subject to fines and disciplinary action, including prosecution.”
Guardian RFID has a contract for the Sherburne County Jail, a 732-bed jail, one of the largest jails in the Twin Cities area of St. Paul-Minneapolis, not far from Guardian RFID’s headquarters. Sheriff Joel Brott runs a “forward-thinking” office, said Guardian RFID President Dalley. The jail also generates extra revenue by housing 500 people detained by ICE and U.S. Marshals, as well as individuals from local and regional jails. Sheriff Brott used these extra income flows to pay for upgrading the facility — in this case, installing Guardian RFID’s system. Like many sheriffs, Brott further monetizes incarceration to pay for his jail. Some are more imaginative than others, like one sheriff in Kentucky.
A “Self-Sufficient” Jail
Jailer Jamie Mosley has developed what he says is the first “self-sufficient” jail. In January 2020, Mosley opened the Laurel County Correctional Center, based in London, Kentucky. The new $24 million jail holds twice the capacity of the previous facility. The new jail came in under budget — due to the unpaid labor of individuals in custody. “The flooring in the hallways, and all of the stone work in the showers was done by the inmates,” Mosley told the local press.
Due to a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, the county is reimbursed $54 per day for each person at the Laurel County jail, plus any medical costs. The federal detainees come from the Eastern District of Kentucky, as well as the larger cities of Knoxville, Chattanooga, Greenville and Nashville. Mosley said the jail is self-sufficient and operates on zero tax dollars. With the extra revenue, Mosley contracted with Guardian RFID, which he says, “gives us so much more accountability than we had before.”
The jail also generated even more revenue for Mosley, who founded his own company called Crossbar to sell bendable e-cigarettes to those in his custody, as well as in other jails. According to a report by Vice, Crossbar sold its e-cigs to 33 jails and in 2018 was expected to make $35 million. Mosley has been unashamed about his exploitation of those he holds under lock and key. “I remind our staff,” he told a local newspaper, “that most of the time our job is to take better care of people than they were taking of themselves.”
Guardian RFID disguises some of its profiteering through what it promotes as humanitarian work. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guardian RFID formed Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit organization to raise money to purchase masks for guards whose “sacrificial and heroic efforts are unseen.” The Warrior Foundation launched “Operation: Swift Mask” with two other major prison profiteers, Securus Technologies and GTL, that provide phone calls for over-priced rates. They raised money to send 250,000 masks inside to jails and prisons.
On one level, the overall mission of Guardian RFID is nothing new — making money off of locking people up. But by combining more traditional elements of overcharging for services with a cutting-edge surveillance system inside jails, Guardian RFID is opening a new frontier of tightening the screws on a population that already faces systematic repression and dehumanization.
This article originally appeared on truthout.org on January 27, 2022, and is reprinted here with permission.
Brian Dolinar, Ph.D. is an independent journalist living in Urbana, Illinois. He works on issues of mass incarceration and immigration. He’s also a former editor at Prison Legal News. His articles have appeared at Counterpunch, In These Times, The Progressive, and Truthout. For more see briandolinar.com.
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