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High-Tech Youth Surveillance, Rikers Island And The Pitfalls Of Jail ‘Reform’

New York City will begin a surveillance pilot program aimed at keeping juvenile defendants accused of committing certain felonies off of Rikers Island. As The New York Times reported on August 14, eligible youth between the ages of sixteen and eighteen will be outfitted with lightweight bracelets tethered electronically to smartphones that are to be carried with them at all times and cannot be turned off.

The devices will allow law enforcement to track the movements of individuals in real-time, while also providing authorities with a constant and direct line of communication to the defendant. The wearer will have access to rehabilitation resources like mental health or drug treatment services or information on obtaining access to food, clothing and housing.  The phones can display case information and send notifications about court dates and appointments.

The pilot program will be available to up to 20 youth in lieu of jail time, at a cost of about $100,000 to taxpayers in the first year. Participants will be chosen using a “battery of psychological surveys and tests,” and will primarily focus on teenagers charged with crimes like drug dealing and unarmed robbery. If they miss appointments or leave the phone behind, they will “receive telephone calls from a counselor demanding an explanation and urging compliance.” Such actions could lead to a bench warrant and arrest.

New York City contracted Corrisoft, a private Kentucky-based company, to provide the technology. According to their website, Corrisoft’s AIR program gives law enforcement powerful surveillance tools, including a “virtual headquarters” that has a map showing the wearer’s location alongside information about them and their case. The dashboard “enables supervising officers to proactively manage offender behavior.” The AIR program can also “[leverage] the smartphone camera to afford virtual search and verification capabilities.”

According to statements made by a company representative in November 2013, quoted by the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald, Corrisoft’s technology includes “anti-jamming or shielding capability and also [uses] data from cell phone towers to track the movement of the wearer.” The data is “monitored from the company’s headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky call center.”

On Rikers Island

The majority of the youth confined on Rikers Island are black males. Many suffer from mental health issues. Nearly all are pretrial detainees who have not yet been convicted of a crime. As The New York Times notes, a federal investigation into Rikers Island and the New York City Department of Corrections found obscene levels of violence perpetrated against juvenile inmates at the hands of guards supposedly there to protect them. Between inadequate medical care provided by by the infamous for-profit contractor Corizon Health Services and exceptional violence all around them, many of the teenagers that passed through Rikers left with serious mental and/or physical scars. Several died.

New York City’s Board of Correction promised many reforms for juvenile inmates on Rikers Island in the past year, including ending the use of solitary for those under 18 and possibly those under 21, if there is funding. They also called for increased access to medical and mental health resources, rehabilitation programs and better staff training and recruitment.

Reforms that keep kids out of jail are particularly important, because studies show high recidivism rates for those who go even once. In New York City in 2014, 60% of youth [PDF] admitted to jail were previously incarcerated. But even though a surveillance program would divert people from jail, in the long run, it’s still unclear if this tactic keeps them out. Some studies, including one submitted to the Department of Justice in 2010 found a reduction in recidivism rate [PDF], but others, such as a study published in 2014 in the Justice Policy Journal [PDF], have not.

The authors of that report found “the likelihood of re-offending for those who have successfully completed the [electronic monitoring] program increases compared to those who have not successfully completed it. Needless to say, based on the results of this study, we do not conclude that [electronic monitoring] does not work, unless its success is measured based on its impact on recidivism.”

‘Innocent until proven guilty’

If the point of this reform is to keep young people off of Rikers Island, this could be a bit of a gamble. It’s not just that electronic monitoring might not reduce recidivism, but that this kind of reform represents a short-term bandaid on a much larger debate that needs more attention: whether we should be incarcerating young people at all.

I asked Nell Bernstein, author of “Burning Down The House: The End Of Juvenile Prison,” what she thought of the city’s plan, and she told me she had mixed feelings.

“Needless to say, GPS tracking is vastly superior to incarceration,” she said, “but much of the conversation about this reform (at least as reflected in the coverage) seems to gloss over the fact that we are talking about defendants, innocent until proven guilty.”

“Nevertheless, we are quite blithely giving the state the right to control their actions: impose curfews, enforce drug treatment, and otherwise assume the role of a parent, all under threat of incarceration — the original problem the program is intended to solve,” Bernstein continued.

She stressed that she does not oppose the effort, calling it “by far the lesser of two evils,” but offered some words of caution: “I’m worried that in the long-overdue debate over how best to reform our bail system and prevent the kind of abuses we see at Rikers, the presumption of innocence, central to American jurisprudence, is being lost — the very principle that is most centrally at stake.”

“With juveniles in particular we give the state so much latitude to take their freedom–behind bars and outside,” she said. “This program sounds much like probation, imposed without a finding of delinquency — in the name of their best interest. We need to be on guard against this even as we work to solve the urgent problems at a place like Rikers.”

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.