Right now, many teens who can’t make bail in NYC are sent to Rikers Island to await their trial. It’s essentially pre-prison incarceration, complete with armed guards, at a place that’s rampant with abuse and corruption.
But starting this September, the Manhattan district attorney’s office is starting a pilot program in which kids ages 16-18 accused of certain felonies will be able to avoid Rikers Island by wearing an ankle bracelet and carrying a smartphone. Inside the ankle cuff is GPS tracking hardware paired to a software system developed by Kentucky technology company Corrisoft. It’s been previously deployed in parole departments in Indiana and Kentucky to both track the location of ex-inmates, and offer them a direct line of communication with their parole officers.
“What we’re really trying to do is bring the new ideas in technology into the corrections space, which for better or worse, has not normally stayed up on technology,” explains Nathan McConathy, CTO at Corrisoft. “They’ve sort of lagged a bit.”
Compared to a Fitbit or Jawbone Up, the hardware is relatively simple. The anklet is molded from a plastic that’s hypoallergenic and resistant to harsh chemicals. And most of its technology guarantees its own security on a person’s body, with a fiber optic wire that runs inside the band, sending occasional encrypted messages to ensure that it hasn’t been cut off. Additionally, if the cuff is ever opened, a single-use holding pin breaks, meaning the band can’t be closed again.
In terms of its actual sensors, though, the band only contains a Bluetooth chip that communicates with a paired phone, which contains the brains of the operation. This minimal engineering means that it can run for nine months without recharging. Without loads of batteries and chips inside, it also can stay discreet.
“The very large ankle bracelets have a stigma associated with them. If you’re at a job site or soccer game and you see somebody with a big bracelet on their ankle, you pull your kids away from them,” McConathy explains. “[But] if they’re at church on Sunday morning and have pants on, you’re not going to notice the size of our ankle bracelet. It does not immediately identify the person with the scarlet letter . . . [and] it makes it easier for someone to relate with them as a person, rather than identifying them for something they did in the past.”
But if it’s just a Bluetooth band, what does the anklet actually do? It’s a way of assuring that a person is near their phone, because it’s the phone that provides the GPS tracking for authorities, and a quick, reliable means to reach the subject if something goes wrong.
The company’s phone is a piece of design restraint. The handset is a totally stock Android smartphone that you could get with a contract–again, allowing the user to carry the device without stigma while using it to make calls or browse the web. Some adjustments have been made to the firmware to avoid tampering, but an app called AIR handles all of the logistics. It’s useful for authorities in that it constantly tracks the user, but it’s actually helpful to a parolee as well: it has a built-in calendar shared with the user and their parole officer, in which various trips can be approved securely, and it contains a complete list of requirements someone may have to avoid re-incarceration, like weekly drug tests. No fine print is lost in a shuffle of paperwork.
“You get a wide range of people. Some of our participants, not only can they not read well, but they’ve never used this type of technology at all. It has to be pretty simple. And visually, you have to understand what an action is by what you see,” McConathy explains. “But some of our participants are well educated, and familiar with this type of tech, so you want to give them an experience that’s not demeaning.”
It also includes a sort of panic button, a one-tap option to put the user in touch with Corrisoft, in case they find themselves in a situation where they’re tempted to break parole and don’t know what to do.
Of course, the argument could be made that a tracking anklet is dehumanizing in the first place. It’s worth noting that in some cases, Corrisoft has implemented the system without an anklet, allowing those who’ve served time for lesser offenses to identify themselves with a biometric voice imprint instead of an ankle band. But for those who can’t avoid the cuff, McConathy insists that his team is designing the device from a position of empathy.
“We really do work this bracelet over to make sure it’s as comfortable as can be to wear,” McConathy says. “I’ve made the members of my team wear the bracelet for extended periods of time, and we actually have everyone in Corrisoft wear it for about a week when they first join the company, so they understand the experience our participants have.”