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Electronic monitoring in residential reentry centers

Smartphones allow for new tools and options to be accessed on the phone to assist in reentry and to increase safety and security


By Jon Gustin and Hugh Hurwitz

In some places, an ankle bracelet is thought of as a piece of jewelry. But an ankle bracelet is also an electronic device fastened around the ankle of a person who is being monitored by law enforcement authorities so they can track their whereabouts.

Ankle bracelets/monitors are used by law enforcement purportedly to protect society and advance rehabilitation by tracking people’s whereabouts. Studies show, however, that such devices fail at these goals, and in fact lead to more people being incarcerated due to malfunctions, false alarms, and minor technical violations. With modern technology, we have access today to new, non-stigmatizing, alternatives that can work to meet these goals.

Monitoring of individuals in home confinement

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) houses almost 160,000 people, 95% of whom will return to our communities. We expect the BOP to prepare them to be productive, law-abiding members of society. Most people returning from the BOP will transition back home through Residential Reentry Facilities (RRCs) otherwise known as “halfway houses” and home confinement (HC).

RRCs are residential facilities that provide a structured supervised environment that supports returning citizens in their transition back to the community as they near their release dates. BOP contracts for, and provides oversight over, approximately 180 individual RRC locations across the United States. In addition to feeding, housing, arranging for medical and mental health care, and providing job placement and education assistance, these facilities are also responsible for monitoring individuals who are placed on HC. Approximately 30,000 individuals transition each year through RRCs and HC with a daily population of approximately 15,000 individuals in RRC or HC programs nationwide.

Unfortunately, the level and type of monitoring of people who are living in HC in our communities are subject to varying levels and effectiveness of monitoring. Law requires that individuals on HC must be “subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring that enables the prompt identification of the prisoner, location, and time….” This language is broad, but despite innovations in electronic monitoring technology, the technology used to monitor most people under BOP contracts is mostly ankle monitors, which does not allow for any positive feedback or interaction with the individual being supervised. Ankle monitors also do not allow for graduated levels of supervision in accordance with evidence-based principles. More importantly, that technology can be stigmatizing as it identifies the wearer as someone formerly incarcerated and/or under supervision.

Smartphone pilot monitoring program

In 2022, the BOP conducted a pilot program using smartphone technology for electronic monitoring, which by all accounts was highly successful. Smartphone technology replaces traditional ankle monitors with a cell phone, and in appropriate cases, a wristwatch-like tether. This technology removes the stigma of ankle monitors (everyone carries a cell phone), further enhancing an individual’s chances for success.

Smartphones also allow for new tools and options to be accessed on the phone to assist in reentry and to increase safety and security. So rather than a stigmatizing, passive monitoring device, smartphones allow for a stigma-free active tool that allows the individual to transition back to a normal life.

For example, using smartphones allows for and facilitates telemedicine, telepsychiatry, teletherapy and access to positive reentry resources, such as job boards, right on the phone. These tools can be utilized to facilitate pro-social activities.

Smartphones also enable the monitoring function to be carried out in a less intrusive manner, reduce the amount of physical reporting requirements, and enable more detailed and specific location information, thereby enhancing community safety.

It is encouraging that the BOP has led the way among correctional agencies by initiating a pilot to improve the conditions of confinement for those in their care. They stress the need to “prepare individuals for reentry into our communities.” Yet, there are additional steps the BOP should take to fulfill President Biden’s commitment to increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration while providing meaningful reentry opportunities for those in the care of the BOP. In particular, the BOP should leverage the results of their pilot and require increased utilization of alternative technology, including smartphones, for electronic monitoring.

About the authors

Jon Gustin has over 24 years of experience working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons with over 20 years of that supervising community-based programs including the Federal Residential Reentry Center programs. Currently, he is the Chief Marketing Officer at TRACKtech LLC.

Hugh Hurwitz held multiple positions in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, including Acting Director and Assistant Director for Reentry Services. Currently, he provides consulting services in prison management, reentry and reform, organizational change, and other areas. He is a member of the Council on Criminal Justice.