Inmates to be monitored with "smart" wristbands in the US

Outside view of Fulton County Jail in Atlanta
Experts demand clear rules for handling collected data – so that they are not used inappropriately. (Source: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire)

In a prison located in the US state of Georgia, inmates are to be closely monitored in the future with the help of wristbands. According to the Sheriff’s department in charge, the first tests have been completed and the technology is now being installed at the detention facility. Critics view this as a violation of prisoners’ privacy rights and demand clear rules for handling the collected data.

The US magazine Wired published a story on Sunday about the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office plans. Fulton County is located in the US state of Georgia.

Documents obtained by Wired through a public record request show how the system developed by the US company Talitrix works. According to the documents, inmates are to wear a device in the future similar to a fitness tracker on their wrist. The device, however, does not have a display. Additionally, it will have a locking mechanism that can not be opened by those wearing it – if the wristband is severed otherwise, prison employees will be notified within 15 seconds.

Constant on-site tracking

According to the report, the devices that have been specifically developed for prison use transfer the wearer’s heart rate among other things via radio frequencies to sensors built in to the prison. These sensors are not to be installed in prison cells. The inmate’s location is also to be transmitted every 30 seconds.

For example, jail personnel can then determine how long prisoners spend in specific areas such as visitation rooms. Jarrett Gorlin from the Sheriff’s Office told Wired in the future that jail personnel could be alerted of “two individuals coming into proximity with each other where a violent act could be perpetuated.”

As described in the documents, correction officers can see at any time how many inmates are in each area of the prison using the Talitrix software called “Inside the Walls.” People are represented in the software using symbols. Additionally, their names, cell number and information about heart rate are displayed.

This information is used as an indicator for potential health problems or suicide attempts, Gorlin explained to Wired. If there are any abnormalities, jail personnel is informed.

It is planned to acquire 750 sensors and 1,000 monitoring devices. For now, about 450 detained people in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta are to wear the mandatory devices on their wrists. In total, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office runs four detention centers. As Gorlin confirmed to Wired, the wristbands have already been tested and the technology will be rolled out in prisons – however, there is no timetable for this yet.

Criticism of additional surveillance

According to the Sheriff’s Office and the manufacturer Talitrix, the system should improve the general security of prisons. Additionally, the technology could help in jails with staffing shortages. Critics counter this by saying it will only lead to more surveillance and fails to address “deeper issues with the criminal justice system.”

According to reports, the jail in Atlanta is in poor condition: Some inmates sleep on the floor and prison cell doors hang off hinges.

James Kilgore from the NGO MediaJustice told Wired that implementing this technology is a “terrifying leap forward.” Biometric data is being collected from people even though this data has nothing to do with them being in jail.

According to statements from the Sheriff’s Office and Talitrix, correctional officers can only view location data and biometric data on-site. The system is also not connected with other state or private systems for the purpose of data transmission.

Nicol Turner Lee, director at the Center for Technology Innovation of the think tank Brookings, criticised that the system “suggests an additional layer of surveillance.” She cautioned that this must be accompanied by “appropriate privacy protections” – there needs to be regulation on how collection information can be used. “It’s very important for law enforcement and correctional institutions to ensure the protection of the data being collected so that it’s not straying from its intended purposes,” she explained to Wired.

As indicated in the report, US prisons are increasingly turning to electronic surveillance systems in the face of staffing shortages. Turner Lee expects the use of this technology to expand as it is viewed as a quick solution. It is unlikely that “guidance and guardrails” for data protection will be implemented. Lee criticises: “When it comes to those impacted by the criminal justice system and those who are sitting within prisons, there is an implicit assumption that their rights do not matter.”

James Kilgore from MediaJustice explains that technology will not improve the quality of life in prisons – instead, it is more important for policies to address problems within the justice system.

Anne Kaun, professor of media and communication at Södertörn University, Sweden, told Wired that prisons are used as testing grounds for surveillance technologies before being used elsewhere. In a study conducted about “smart” prisons in 2019, she came to the conclusion that prisoners are among the most surveilled populations without being able to object. (js)