Calif. inmates to wear 'non-removable' electronic bracelets in county jails
Inmates will soon be required to wear an electronic wristband that tracks their movements within jail systems
By Gabriel Greschler
Silicon Valley, San Jose, Calif.
SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. — Inmates in Santa Clara County will soon be required to wear a "non-removable" electronic wristband that tracks their movements within jail systems, replacing the old system of paper bracelets now in use — a move pushed by the sheriff's department to increase safety.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to enter into a $1.6 million contract with GUARDIAN RFID, a company that specializes in technology for jails and prisons.
It wasn't immediately clear how many of the 2,500 inmates at both Main Jail North in San Jose and Elmwood jail in Milpitas will wear the bracelets that utilize a technology that allows sheriff's deputies to scan them at various points throughout county jail. The scan creates an electronic record of where an inmate has been, and is currently used in both L.A. and Santa Cruz county jails. (The system does not give jail staff a live view of the inmate's location.)
In advocating for the wristbands, the sheriff's department said the existing system of paper bracelets is "time-intensive" and "prone to error." The department also claims that the electronic version will help increase safety within their facilities and help abide by 2019 federal consent decrees surrounding jail accessibility and conditions.
"This advanced technology will help to ensure that each inmate receives the fundamental care to which they are legally entitled," sheriff's spokesperson Russell Davis wrote in a statement. "It will also provide essential data to help management ensure appropriate program time for each inmate, as well as provide for overall safety and security within the facility."
Despite initial hesitation at the beginning of the year to adopt the wristbands — including a verbal scuffle between Supervisor Joe Simitian and Sheriff Laurie Smith over the proposal being delayed — the proposal sailed through on Tuesday.
To assuage privacy concerns, the county will review of the wristbands after six months to determine their effectiveness and inmates' response to the new technology. The county also has the option of transitioning to an ID cards that can still be scanned, but would allow for inmates to take the technology on and off as opposed to the bracelets which can't be removed from the wrist.
"We need to improve the system," said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg in an interview. "With this six month check, we do have the opportunity to see are they working. Are they negatively impacting the people in our custody more than an ID card would? We can certainly change the methodology."
Ellenberg, a proponent of criminal justice reform and a frequent critic of the sheriff's department, said she thinks the new technology can contributing positively by ensuring that inmates are given their mandated amount of time outside of their cells.
"This really is a compromise in trying to improve our systems while acknowledging that this tech may have a dehumanizing impact on the people who are wearing them," she said.
Civil liberties advocates came away from the vote with mixed feelings.
The six month review that the county promises is an important guardrail for the adoption of the technology, said Cooper Quintin, a senior staff technologist at the digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation. But he expressed concern that the bracelets are treading a slippery slope that threatens to bring in increasingly intrusive hardware into the jails.
"Technologies like this are bringing marketed in such a way that treats the prison like a battlefield and corrections officers like soldiers," he said. "I'm concerned that this will lead to corrections officers treating inmates like enemy combatants and focus even more on control and punishment instead of rehabilitation."
GUARDIAN RFID, based out of Minnesota, describes itself as protecting "every member of the Thin Gray Line by tracking every inmate in the United States," according to its website.
The timing of the adoption of the bracelets comes at a critical juncture for the future of Santa Clara County's jail system. Last month, county staff signaled that they were going to scrap a more than half-billion dollar contract for the construction of a new jail, possibly pushing the already delayed project back by years and increasing its cost yet again. The decision came as controversial statements about contraception and abortion by executives of the construction company awarded the contract, J.E. Dunn, came to light.
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