Re: LEGAL: Alternatives to imprisonment
Sun, 7 Mar 1999 13:58:48 EST

There seems little question that the current institution of the prison system in the U.S. is a failure and a disgrace. In part because far too many people are imprisoned for victimless crimes, prisons here have become inhumane crime factories. Decriminalizing victimless, consensual activity would obviously go a long way toward relieving one of the primary causes of problems in prisons, which is overcrowding. Beyond this, two means could be employed to reform the current state of our prisons: Improved and more widespread electronic monitoring and revised prison architecture.

The technology currently employed with electronically monitored home "incarceration" is pretty primitive. The examples I've seen involve a receiver installed in the home and a clunky anklet transmitter that is monitored by the stationary unit. The base station is connected to a telephone land line and receives a call from an automated system once a day
(or more often). The "prisoner" is required to answer the phone, respond to a
randomly generated series of questions and place a proximity sensor onto the anklet. The base unit periodically calls the central facility to report on whether the anklet has passed beyond the range of its receiver (approximately 200 feet). A human probation officer must review the recorded responses to the questions asked by the system (to, among other things, confirm the identity and sobriety of the offender).

A more sophisticated system could easily be developed with cellular and/or GPS technology and more advanced information processing. First, the base station could be dispensed with. Second, a smaller and less intrusive mobile unit could give constant reporting on a prisoner's whereabouts. Third, the system could be designed to include or exclude specific locations from a prisoner's prescribed locations, so that probation or sentence could include non-entry into a specific neighborhood or house. Units could also be designed to interact with each other, so that offenders or probationers could be effectively prohibited from congregating or acting together. All of these factors could be analyzed and reporting could be prioritized and decentralized so that, for instance, a report of unauthorized congregation of offenders could be routed immediately to the closest law enforcement officers, as well as to the specific officer in charge of the particular individuals involved. Finally, the anklet could be designed to emit an on-going audible alarm whenever the spatial or temporal conditions of probation or incarceration had been breached. In this way, people near the offender would be alerted to the presence of a parole violator.

Use of more sophisticated electronic monitoring systems could keep most firstand even second-time offenders out of the prison population, reserving prison for only the most serious and chronic criminals. The audible alarm function would serve as a strong deterrent to young people, who are particularly sensitive to social pressure, and might keep them from descending down a ladder of escalating antisocial behavior.

For the most serious offenders, prison should not be a social club for sociopaths. I have never understood why prisons are designed to allow the aggravation and spreading of antisocial behavior. Simply put, why can't prisons be designed to isolate bad actors from each other as well as from society? Given the high per-prisoner cost of our current prisons, I believe we could do better by designing facilities that put each prisoner into humane isolation. I envision a modular construction of cells, each with its own exterior enclosure. Access to the exterior section, which would be equipped with stationary exercise appliances, could be remotely and automatically controlled. The cell space could be provided with maximally tamper-proof plumbing fixtures and surveillance technology and would be designed essentially as a one-piece, stackable unit. The side opposite from the exterior exercise area would interlock to form an access way observable to prison guards. Meals would be taken in isolation, delivered with an automated system. Prisoner access from cells to facilities such as medical care and ingress and egress at the beginning and end of incarceration would be via protected walkways that could be opened and closed remotely. The utility connections of the cells would be built into them, would connect in a modular fashion and would be serviceable from the exterior of the cell. All access points would be designed to default mechanically to the closed position, so that power interruption would not result in an open environment. Cell units could be prefabricated in a factory setting and assembled into larger or smaller prisons as needs demanded with minimal on-site labor or specialized tools or materials.

While making solitary confinement the universal default condition of imprisonment would seem inhumane to some, I would ask whether this would be any less humane than the brutality perpetrated by prison gangs and violent individuals. Furthermore, while the opportunities for rehabilitation might by curtailed by solitary confinement, I wonder whether any real rehabilitation is possible in the current prison environment. One possibility for rehabilitation would be to make placement of a terminal device in a cell
(connected to intranet cabling already in place in the original unit) a reward
for good behavior, with increasingly open (but monitored) access to the internet a continuing reward for continued good behavior.

	Greg Burch     <>----<>
	   Attorney  :::  Director, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
	           "Good ideas are not adopted automatically.  They must
	              be driven into practice with courageous impatience." 
	                      -- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover