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Walking Prisons: Science Fact, Not Fiction

Opinion Editorial
April 11, 1994

By  Max Winkler-Wang

I work as a Parole Officer in the Denver area, in an Intensive Supervision Program unit that does electronic monitoring of serious convicted felons. We hook people up with leg bracelets that verify home curfews, presence at designated work sites, even blood alcohol levels over the phone lines.

It is an emerging technology with drawbacks, such as presented by the syringe-in-the Pepsi-can scammer Gail Levene. She removed herself form the system by using scissors to cut off the leg-band of her ankle bracelet. But despite the drawbacks, the demand for devices such as this is growing due to the rapidly spiraling costs of jail and prison incarceration, in bulging facilities, and a citizenry unwilling and likely unable to shoulder the burden of these rising costs.

The electronic surveillance systems of Parole, Probation and Community Corrections are only the first generation of an emerging technology. The second generation will be based on a real-time locator system. Very simply: a high frequency blip, either piggy-backing its signal on existing cellular phone towers, or transmitting off a triad of radio towers.

The signal is received by a locked ceramic or polymer composite bracelet worn by a released felon. Such a system allows basic questions to be answered, such as; “Where is the person right now, and where was, say, at 2 AM last Tuesday?” If the felon attempted to cut off the bracelet, it would transmit the location of the tamperer with enough lead time for police to arrive to arrest him.

The third generation of technology is even more intriguing, the projection being electronic and chemical implants like those pioneered by the Norplant contraceptive. They would be used to monitor and control pedophiles and violent psychotics on our streets. Microprocessor sensors transmitting digital readouts of physiological data, as well as location, are teamed with small sedative vials that release dosages when a signal is received.

The use for this device is aimed at the convicted child molester whose arrival at a school yard, sets off the first alarm. His use of alcohol, down to the specific blood alcohol count, is also digitally transmitted. A penile sphinctemometer micro-processor alerts authorities that sexual arousal is imminent, and an automatic program kicks in to release a dose of a sleep sedative. The pedophile is eventually picked up while sleeping harmlessly at the corner of the school yard.

The above descriptions are not wild science fiction, nor are they even hypothetical proposals for the use of emerging technologies. These are pragmatic visions of what is definitely coming. As such, they have the validity of Mark Twains prediction (in “Puddnhead Wilson”) of the eventual use of fingerprints in criminal detection. There may be a reasonable fear that this technology could be used as tool of repression by totalitarian government against its own people. There is also an unreasonable belief by some of the same people that this technology should never be allowed to emerge lest it be used for such evil purpose.

The early 19th Century Luddites who smashed machines in factories, to hold back the Industrial Revolution, portrayed the same narrow-mindedness. If Twains prediction on fingerprints had been taken more seriously, it could have been banned and prevented. Tyrannies such as Nazi Germany and the Soviets would not have been able to use against their own people.

A similar argument could have been made for the prevention of the proliferation of video cams, with their devastating political implications. Without them, the repressive government of Myanmar would not have such an easy time at identifying dissidents (or for that matter, traumas such as the beating of Rodney King would not be so widely seen, with the eventual greater trauma of death and destruction such as the L.A. Riots). Or, while we are at it, why not just ban TV with its violence and means of creating often incendiary turmoil in our society? (Although the cultural and social benefits of such a proposal might be very enticing.)

We need to be focused and willing to intelligently discuss these issues. The use of fingerprint technology made no significant difference in the outcomes of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. In reality, the more a state uses means to repress its own population, the more it assures its own fall. And the inverse is that the more it uses means to safeguard its own population, the more validity and stability it achieves for itself.

In America, the real tyranny and repression is the terror and cost of crime and lawlessness to the American People. The legal precedents of Antabuse for the control of chronic DUI offenders, lifetime Parole supervision for violent sex offenders, absolute accountability for location and actions of released felons, have all been legally recognized.

The use of emerging technologies is not an infringement of civil liberties, but rather, they are possible assurances of the civil liberties of an over-taxed and crime infringed public. Ultimately, the real question is not whether these technologies are really feasible, but whether we have the will to use them in our own defense and legitimate interests.


Max Winkler is a Parole Officer in Denver and a member of the Independence Institute. He will be presenting a complete treatise on the walking prisons technology before the World Symposium of Criminal Justice in Shanghai, China on June 21.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Editorial Coordinator, Independence Institute, 14142 Denver West Pkwy., suite 185, Golden, CO 80401 Phone 303-279-6536 (fax) 303-279-4176 (email) webmngr@i2i.org


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