"Six months doesn't sound so bad. I mean, compared to the guys I've met who were in for five years or 15 years, I had it good. But it's still plenty long enough to lose your job. Lose your family. Even lose your friends, people you thought you could rely on. Seemed like more than enough punishment for carrying some weed."
In 2014, Ralph Turner, a 25-year-old truck driver and father of two, was arrested in San Jose on suspicion of possessing marijuana. Turner had been carrying more than 30 grammes, and after a short trial he was convicted and given a mandatory sentence of six months in prison.
California's prisons were full to bursting, and with the state in the midst of a severe and extended budget crisis, it couldn't afford to build any more. Faced with no alternative, the court enrolled Turner into a pilot probation programme aimed at low-risk offenders.
Turner was taken to an induction centre and shown a short video. His mobile phone number was entered into a computer, a technician looped a measuring tape around Turner's ankle and, after a short wait, snapped a light plastic ring into place. He was free to go, albeit with certain restrictions, and inadvertently Ralph Turner became one of the first people to benefit from America's slow turn away from its ruinously expensive and ineffective penal system.
The object I'm holding right now, an 'ankle surveillance monitor', is a thin ring of plastic, maybe half a centimetre thick if you count the inner padding. Inside the plastic is a simple computer, a radio, and a microphone array.
Like earlier monitors, it can locate the wearer by satellite positioning and send a warning if the wearer leaves or approaches a restricted area. But Turner's monitor is a little different: its microphone array constantly records and streams every nearby sound to a remote server, so if the wearer is suspected of violating their probation, the relevant audio section can be decrypted by court order. More controversially, in a concession to public fears, the monitor doesn't just relay its position to the police and judicial system, it also informs a wide range of 'concerned parties' including schools, hospitals, and airports.
The theory was that this new generation of ankle monitors could be used for non-violent low risk offenders, such as those convicted of drugs possession or petty theft or vandalism. Not only would they save tens of thousands of dollars per person, they'd also allow the wearers to continue their jobs and live with their families. Coupled with mandatory community service, the monitors seemed to be the best — and only — alternative to a penal system that was too expensive and barely appeared to reduce crime at all. Expert Amira Goss elaborates:
"More than ten million people worldwide were imprisoned in 2014, and a full quarter of them lived in America, a country with only five percent of the world's population. Incredibly, most Americans gave little thought to their system of incarceration; if anything, many felt it was too lenient. The fact that prisons only became commonplace as a means of punishment in the 19th century was completely overlooked.
"From a historical perspective, America's penal system was little different from the old debtors’ prisons, with many inmates made to work at below minimum wage to pay their way. Not only was it incredibly wasteful, but worse still, it didn't really work. Recidivism rates were stubbornly high, and even long sentences didn't seem to deter criminals who had few other options in life. My view is that they became more about retribution and the very literal removal of criminals from sight — an understandable impulse for severe crimes like murder, but not for petty theft."
Between 1970 and 2014, US incarceration rates increased five-fold thanks to mandatory sentencing laws, privatisation of the prison system, and much stricter attitudes to crime and punishment compared to other rich countries. The human cost of putting close to one in a hundred adults in jail was horrific, and certainly not worth the relatively modest decrease in crime rates, even assuming that there was any causal link.
Prison had become a place that destroyed families and jobs and bred a virulent criminal culture. As befitting the time, though, it wasn't the human cost of imprisonment that led to our ankle monitor, it was the economic cost. By the early 21st century, the price of keeping someone in jail was almost as much as the average US income.
The new ankle monitors encountered fierce resistance in California, from all points across the political spectrum. The ACLU argued that the ankle tags violated human rights on an unprecedented scale, while state Republicans claimed that 'freeing' tens of thousands of prisoners would create a wave of violent crime. As revealed by data miners taking advantage of transparency laws enacted in the 2050s, much of the opposition was funded by donations from corporations profiting from private prisons, and their warnings were accepted by a frightened and receptive public.
The US government had little choice, though; it simply couldn't afford the expense of housing so many prisoners. Thanks to a powerful speech from Reverend James Malone, a charismatic religious leader, the public was eventually convinced that it was better to try and reintegrate prisoners into society rather than spend a fortune on them.
The problems began almost immediately. Whether or not they were wearing an ankle monitor, many wearers still committed crimes, even though they were swiftly apprehended. Dozens more simply vanished, and hundreds of wearers were unfairly punished for simple malfunctions on their monitors.
As predicted by security experts, monitors were reverse-engineered in order to spoof and intercept the tracking signals. A firmware update eventually addressed these issues six months later, but for a while it was possible for anyone with the right equipment to track the wearers. Most damningly, the audio recordings were usually too poor in quality to be useful as evidence, at least until new hardware was released in 2018 and integrated with the wearers' other sensors.
Yet the US government forged on. Too much had been invested to give up now, and the promise of massive savings dazzled their judgement. Three years on, the pilot programme was expanded to all low-risk offenders and taken up by several other cash-strapped states convinced that it was an easy way to save money; in New York and Pennsylvania, the monitors were linked into a flexible community service system that allowed a much wider set of institutions — churches, charities, businesses — to work with offenders through automatic reporting and wireless tracking, bypassing the prison system entirely.
In the vanguard states, sentences became shorter, swifter, and surer. By 2036, the prison population in the US had been cut by a third, saving tens of billions a year — and more importantly, helping millions of offenders stay in work and keep their families intact.
What fascinates us today about ankle monitors is how they represent the dilemmas and compromises that were typical of the early 21st century. It would be a mistake to attribute the sweeping changes in the US penal system to a mere piece of technology rather than its human backers and designers, but they still remain a powerful symbol. Social historian Julie Yao observes:
"The monitors were important because they helped to break a spiral of alienation and failure among prisoners. It's easy for us to think that the Americans of 2014 were somehow heartless, but the truth is that most genuinely believed that prison was the only thing that stopped people from committing crimes, thanks to the sensationalist media of the time.
"Monitors brought punishment and rehabilitation back into the open — but at the cost of normalising ubiquitous surveillance, a decision that had serious consequences later in the century."
We can't know what Turner was thinking during his six months of monitored probation with his ankle monitor, but inspection of his nascent casters including Facebook, IMs, and text messages shows that he seemed to fare well enough. In an interview years later, Turner remarked, "I didn't enjoy being a guinea pig, and I sure as hell didn't appreciate someone being able to listen in on every damn thing that I did. But if you gave me the choice between prison and the monitor, I'd have strapped that thing on with my own bare hands."