RE: LEGAL: Alternatives to imprisonment

Billy Brown (
Mon, 8 Mar 1999 09:41:39 -0600 wrote:
> 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.

This is a neat idea. I don't thing it is quite feasible yet, but it isn't very far off. Fitting all the electronics into a small enough package should be practical within a couple of years. The battery is a bit of a problem, however - we don't want to rely on something as failure-prone as current cell phone systems.

> 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.

The software to run this system would be far more complex than it seems at first glance, but I think it is (just) within the limits of what we can currently do.

One problem with implementing it right now: I asume that any communication failure is going to be interpreted by the system as a parole violation (otherwise there are too many ways to spoof it). Given the low reliability of current wireless systems and battery technology, this means false alarms would be fairly common.

> 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.

As a temporary measure imposed by the limits of modern technology, I would support this approach. Ultimately, I think criminals at this level should have the option of mental reprogramming instead (note, however, that this is the *individual's* choice, not the State's).

> I envision a modular construction
> of cells, each with its own exterior enclosure.

I like your general approach, but I don't think it is technically beneficial to try to create a modular pre-fab design. Heavy concrete-and-steel construction is not especially well suited to this approach, especially if security is important. But we can easily build the same kind of setup using conventional techniques, and it would be considerably cheaper than current prisons.

> Access to the exterior
> section, which would be equipped with stationary exercise appliances,
> could be remotely and automatically controlled.

How about one exercise area for a group of 4-6 cells? Everyone gets allotted a 2-hour block of daily exercise time, and that's it. It means you need to station a guard where he can see the exercise area, but you probably still end up saving money.

> 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.

It would be far less expensive to use relatively normal fixtures, and accept the need for an occasional maintenance visit.

> 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.

Unfortunately, this isn't possible yet. You need electrical connections, plumbing, and climate control, all of which require complex connections performed by skilled technicians. That's the main reason why I suggest implementing the same design using normal construction methods.

> 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.

Besides, it also means we could shorten prison stays in many cases. If prison is going to have any deterrent effect at all on an individual, a few months of solitary confinement will be more effective than several years of conventional incarceration.

> 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.

I don't like the idea of giving criminals direct contact with the outside world. Why not simply give them access to an internal library? Give them a book list and forms for requesting titles, and they can receive their selections through the same system that delivers the food. This approach has been used in the past, and it seems to work about as well as most other methods of rehabilitation (which is to say, there are occasional successes but little overall effect).

Billy Brown, MCSE+I