Tag Archives: prison system

When Innovation Fails: Doing Hard Time in the Offender-Monitoring Business

In Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter explores another problem with the privatization of law enforcement: technology. From scrambled signals and dead batteries to false violations, the electronic ankle bracelets 3M created failed to protect wearers’ civil liberties even though the process used to design them reflected the company’s way of thinking about innovation and experimentation. Unfortunately, creating monitors for human beings involves higher stakes than yellow stickies.

The sheer amount of data generated by GPS-tracking devices creates problems across the industry and in every state, but the number of alerts in Massachusetts has far exceeded the norm, experts say. Documents reviewed by Bloomberg show that in the 12 months ended in October 2015, 3M bracelets produced 612,492 violation alerts in Massachusetts—more than 50,000 per month, from about 2,800 individuals wearing the devices. Almost 40 percent of the alerts were due to a device not being able to connect to the network or the GPS not being detected. Roughly 1 percent of alerts resulted in an arrest warrant being issued. Tom Pasquarello, former director of the electronic monitoring program for Massachusetts, estimates that half those warrants were potentially based on faulty or incomplete data. That would be roughly 3,000 warrants. “There were people that were pulled from their house in the middle of the night, that lost their kids, people that lost their job,” he says.

The problem of glitchy ankle monitors became so pronounced that the Massachusetts probation department set up an after-hours office in the lobby of a Boston police station so offenders could bring in their bracelets when problems occurred or batteries died. In August 2015, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger became so frustrated with the devices that she vowed to stop sentencing anybody to them. “It is simply administratively improper to run a system in this fashion,” she said, according to a court transcript. “We don’t lose liberty in this country because somebody’s software is not working. It just isn’t right.”

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Getting Reacquainted With the World After Decades in Prison

In the New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem follows two ex-convicts who pick up inmates the day they are released and help then navigate through their first day of freedom, which can be unnerving if they’ve been behind bars for more than a decade:

‘‘The first day is everything,’’ Carlos says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, ‘‘like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,’’ he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, ‘‘How you doin’?’’ and Acosta said, ‘‘Fine,’’ that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.

But what if Acosta had accidentally bumped into a waitress, knocking over her tray and shattering dishes? What if that man had glared at him, instead of greeting him, or snapped at him to get the hell out of the way? Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that even the smallest bungled interactions on the outside leave recently incarcerated people feeling ‘‘like they’re being exposed, like they’re incompetent. It’s feeding into their worst fear, their perception of themselves as an impostor who’s incapable of living a normal life.’’ Carlos and Roby have learned to steer their guys through that perilous newness — and to be nonchalant about it, to make the sudden enormity of life feel unthreatening, even fun. On one ride home earlier this year, I watched a third-striker venture inside a convenience store, alone, to buy a candy bar while Roby pumped gas. The man seemed emboldened after a few hours of freedom, actually hopping a bit as he walked. But then he tripped over the curb and tumbled forward, arms thrashing, nearly face-planting in front of the door. Roby just shrugged and said, ‘‘Well, you’ve got to get that one out of the way.’’

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Meals Behind Bars: A Reading List

Food is everywhere — we eat at home, at work, at school, on the go, and while traveling. Many of us are able to eat what we choose, when we choose; for some, deciding what to eat, obtaining it, and preparing is enough of a burden that we’re turning to meal-replacements like Soylent in such numbers that orders are backlogged for weeks. That all changes in jail, where you eat what you’re given — or you don’t eat at all. Among the many freedoms prison limits, where does losing the ability to choose the timing, quantity, and, most importantly, flavor of your food rank? Pretty high.

Three of these pieces look at what mealtime is like on the inside, from an examination of chow hall food to stories of inmates’ ad-hoc cell-made meals to an in-depth look at a commissary food that’s both dietary supplement and currency for thousands of inmates. A fourth adds a different dimension, revealing how some of the foods on our own tables are the product of prison labor.

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The Unlikely Roots of Solitary Confinement

In a perverse tribute to human endeavor, solitary confinement began as a reform. Thinkers in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries imagined that it might be possible to induce criminals to change from within, especially if they could be kept isolated from one another and from the corruptions of the outside world. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a Panopticon—a circular prison with a central “inspection house” that allowed authorities to look into any cell at any time—was predicated on the idea that the prisoner under constant surveillance would internalize authority’s gaze, and cease misbehaving.

The Panopticon itself was never built, but Bentham’s ideas of solitary confinement and penitent reflection appealed to Pennsylvania Quakers, who incorporated them into an idea for a new kind of prison that was built. Philadelphia’s huge Eastern State Penitentiary, completed in 1829 and still standing, deviated from the Panopticon by making no cell visible to any other; rather, cells were located in corridors that radiated like spokes on a wheel from a central hall. Each cell had a Bible, and each prisoner was given piecework jobs. Cultivators of silence, the Quakers believed that isolation would help criminals mend their ways. The Pennsylvania system was copied all over the world, and the word “penitentiary” became universal.

One reason for the rapid spread is that the new penitentiaries appeared to be an advance over capital and corporal punishment, which had been the main penalties up to that time. As Michel Foucault observed, the locus of punishment shifted from a criminal’s body to a criminal’s mind. Reformers in England believed they had found in solitary confinement the “most terrible penalty” short of death that a society could inflict—and yet, in their view, the penalty was also “the most humane.” It turned out that the therapeutic value of isolation was negligible; in fact, solitary confinement made prisoners worse, to the point of driving many of them mad. The penitentiaries were successful, however, in inflicting punishment and keeping prisoners away from society—which, people felt, was on the whole a bargain.

Ted Conover, writing in Vanity Fair about the psychological horrors of solitary confinement.

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