Prisons Replace Ankle Bracelets With An Expensive Smartphone App That Doesn't Work

from the check-out-anytime-you-want-but-you-can-never-leave dept

Tired: monitoring parolees with ankle bracelets. Wired: monitoring parolees with smartphone apps.

Maybe it will be a better idea someday, but that day isn’t here yet. Ankle bracelets are prone to unexpected failure, just like any other electronic device. False negatives — alerts saying a parolee isn’t at home — are no better than false positives in the long run, although the former is the only one that can take away someone’s freedom.

The costs of ankle bracelets are borne by the parolee. Smartphone apps may be slightly cheaper… but only if you don’t factor in the cost of a smartphone or the app itself. Smartphones aren’t easy for parolees to obtain. Neither are the jobs needed to subsidize both the phone and the app’s monthly charge.

Those lucky enough to secure a smartphone are discovering the new solution is just as prone to error as its predecessor.

On the day Layla got out of prison and back to her home in Georgia, she was told she would need to purchase a smartphone—not an insignificant task for someone who’d just completed a sentence, but Layla was lucky to have a friend who could buy one for her. She says she was at home in bed a few days later when the app she had been mandated to install under the terms of her release went off unexpectedly, the high-pitched warning alarm blaring as it sent a notification to her parole officers telling him that she was not, in fact, at home.

Panicked, Layla took a picture of herself and sent him her location, trying to correct the app’s mistake. The process would repeat relentlessly, she says, waking her up every half hour during the night. “I’d wake up crying,” she says. Sometimes, when she tried to authenticate her location or check in the app would tell her it didn’t recognize her voice. “I’d feel so tired, and I thought if I didn’t answer, I was going to go back to prison.” Soon, she says, she was “begging my parole officer to put an ankle monitor on me.”

Guardian is the app that’s so unable to do its job properly some parolees are asking to be rolled back to the previous version of parolee monitoring: ankle bracelets. Guardian has almost 50,000 “users,” according to its data, and Layla isn’t the only parolee in danger of being violated back into prison by the malfunctioning app. Other parolees spoken to by Gizmodo are reporting the same issues. They say the app is almost “unusable” due to its inability to accurately report location info or recognize the biometric data they’re required to upload.

Unsurprisingly, the app is owned by Telmate, the same company that operates Global Tel*Link. Global Tel*Link is in the business of selling prisoners access to the outside world. It runs a number of prison communication networks — ones known for charging exorbitant per-minute fees for phone calls originating from prisons, as well as controlling the entertainment devices (like tablets and mp3 players) of nearly every other digital interaction engaged in by inmates. That it would release a sloppily-coded app into the wild with the oversold promise to simplify monitoring of released inmates is also no surprise, since any costs ($$$, freedom) will be paid for by the same inmates the company has shown repeatedly it cares nothing about.

The app is intrusive — even more intrusive than unannounced in-home visits by parole officers. The app does what corrections officers physically can’t do: demand dozens of check-ins a day.

“Guardian cost me my job,” says another person who had been incarcerated for more than a decade who used the app and remembers it asking him to check in more than 10 times an hour. “At night I couldn’t sleep, and then at work I’d have to pull my phone out all the time.” Half the time, he says, it wouldn’t accurately recognize his face or his voice.

Guardian demands more but does less. A P.O. could easily verify a person’s identity when meeting them in person. The app taking their place is apparently unable to reliably do this. It fails at this simple task multiple times an hour, day after day. An app unable to balance its ID books isn’t going to help anyone return to a normal life after repaying their debt to society.

A quick cost-benefit analysis sides heavily with costs. The app costs $90/month and doesn’t work correctly. What it does do is put compliant parolees at risk of being incarcerated again. Even when it’s working somewhat correctly, it’s a problem.

As we found in the review, Guardian checks in with Telmate’s servers every single minute, waking up a phone if it’s asleep and ignoring the operating system’s requests to optimize the battery. Given what Guardian is used for, the app predictably relies on the user granting it access to a number of potentially privacy-invasive sensors on their device, including wifi, Bluetooth, audio settings, and camera access.

All day, everyday surveillance parolees are expected to pay for. And even when they follow the rules, the app says they aren’t. Also included in the code are hooks for surreptitious recording — hidden access to devices’ microphones that can be triggered in standby or sleep mode. Not that sleep mode means anything when the app is phoning home every sixty seconds.

The expectation of privacy for paroled prisoners is low. But it’s not nonexistent. This expensive app removes everything that’s left and replaces it with intrusive check-ins that are so badly implemented they may as well be a malfunctioning ankle bracelet for all the good it’s doing for parolees. But this is likely the best prisoners are ever going to get. Very few people who matter — those with the power to change things — care what happens to ex-criminals. Every sentence can be a life sentence with the proper amount of indifference.

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Companies: telmate

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Comments on “Prisons Replace Ankle Bracelets With An Expensive Smartphone App That Doesn't Work”

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36 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

App ain't the problem

…… "Very few people who matter — those with the power to change things — care what happens"

so the real problem is these uncaring government prison officials — not the Guardian App !

these government prison bureaucrats suffer no personal consquences for bad decisions or neglect — their fat paychecks look the same

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

The expectation of privacy for paroled prisoners is low. But it’s not nonexistent.

Remember that even the ankle-monitor technology has only existed for around 30 years. What’s changed since then to make us think we need to monitor parolees so much more closely? IMHO, nothing, except that the technology got cheaper. Same reason we’re seeing metal detectors outside of airports. It’s overuse and should be stopped.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why the hell should the government care whether the technology got cheaper. They make the parolees pay for it, which is a problem in itself.

It is. Still, people would tend to notice, eventually, if only the richest white-collar criminals were getting parole. Defense lawyers would make Constitutional claims of excessive punishment. Whether out of concern for fairness or for optics, judges might put a stop to it.

As television has taught us, if something costs "less than a (daily) cup of coffee", certainly nobody could have trouble spending that.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Duh!

Its as bad as the military complex.
WE live in a nation that thinks, taking TIME away from a person solves something.. And that taking money from a poor person will make him do things the States way. Might as well be the old religion, and get ostracized from Church for questioning the Preacher, doing things Your way and not the Groups way.

Its been proved a few times that if you change prison into a school, teaching format, it tends to make things better. But we dont believe/do that.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"What’s changed since then to make us think we need to monitor parolees so much more closely? "

Well, the theory is meant to be that it allows lower risk prisoners to be released earlier and confined outside of the prison system, thus greatly reducing costs and allowing them to be able to more easily integrate back into society when their sentence is done. It’s a sound theory, but the practice is somewhat lacking.

Agammamon says:

Re: Re:

Well, the ankle bracelet itself changed things.

It was supposed to allow for more leniency when deciding who gets parole – because you can track the location of the parolee you can loosen your standards on those you think might recidividize (ITS A WORD!) or flee.

So its less that a higher level of tracking was felt necessary but the higher level of tracking allowed for more leniency.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'In prison or out you're still paying us.'

A quick cost-benefit analysis sides heavily with costs. The app costs $90/month and doesn’t work correctly. What it does do is put compliant parolees at risk of being incarcerated again. Even when it’s working somewhat correctly, it’s a problem.

Unsurprisingly, the app is owned by Telmate, the same company that operates Global TelLink. Global TelLink is in the business of selling prisoners access to the outside world. It runs a number of prison communication networks — ones known for charging exorbitant per-minute fees for phone calls originating from prisons, as well as controlling the entertainment devices (like tablets and mp3 players) of nearly every other digital interaction engaged in by inmates.

Pay extortionate rates for an app that doesn’t work, and if it fails one too many times they’re back in prison where the company can squeeze even more money out of the person. I struggle to think of a better example of why the legal system(it sure as hell isn’t a justice system) should absolutely never be for-profit.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: 'In prison or out you're still paying us.'

"I prefer to think of it as a criminal education system."

Which neatly closes the loop. Soft criminals go into the system, get a parole on good behavior, get fitted with a malfunctioning app which then turns those soft cases into near-permanent members of the prison population, condemned to keep sliding deeper into debt on the inside…

After a few years those "soft"cases, since thoroughly hardened, emerge with a comprehensible education in the finer points of drug smuggling, burglary, and pimping, with all the relevant networks they need to start their new careers.

Good thing too, because with the permanent debts accrued due to their incarceration, a shot credit rating, and "EX-CON" stamped all over their friggin CV the only businesses hiring them will be the less-than-legal ones.

Gotta hold your nose and admire, in the abstract at least, how the US managed to reinvent de facto slavery without a single western nation sitting up and noticing much.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 'In prison or out you're still paying us.'

"a criminal education system."

Yup – some enter the machine innocent, take a plea deal, get chewed up and spit out hardened criminals subservient to a corrupt parole system. This educates them that all that law ‘n order stuff was bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

As for that one person who lost her job over that, what if she were working for an employer that jammed all employee cell phones?

There was a SaveMart here a few years ago that jam cell phones in that location.

Cell phone reception went dead when you went into the store but came back out again

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

One type of jammer that is not illegal is a jammer that jams wireless cameras

One business partner I had when i had my online radio station used them in her hotel room when she took her daughters to disneyland.

Some nefarious people do often times put hidden cameras in hotel bathrooms unknown and unauthorized by the hotel

She used that jammer to jam.any hidden cameras when her daughters either took a bath or used the bathroom

Using that jammer to protect her little girls did not break any california laws or any federal laws. She did not break.any laws using that jammer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You should probably source that. Jamming is illegal. Specifically sending radio signals meant to interfere with the proper operation of other radio or electronic devices. There are absolutely legitimate uses for wireless video recording equipment. And "legal jamming" would not be a thing for that reason alone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If she KNEW there was a camera in goddamn DISNEY hotel, she should have informed the management. Not simply jammed a camera and "ah well someone elses kid can get filmed naked".

That makes her a monster that doesn’t care about anyone but her own.

Plus she’s actually breaking the law. Just because SHE says "it’s not illegal" doesn’t make it legal. She’s jamming radiowaves and thats 100% VERY VERY illegal both Federally and in California.

Just because she believes "wifi cameras" and "radio waves" are different things doesn’t make it so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Some radio jamming is illegal at the federal level, but not under California state law

California does not have any state laws regarding radio jamming unless it is for something like jamming ankle bracelets or ignition interlocks (which send data to the monitoring stations using cellular modems). Unless you are jamming either an ankle bracelet or an ingitiion interlock, there are no state laws in california regarding radio jamming.

Those are the only kinds of jamming that violate state law in California.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Jamming data is not currently illegal in the USA, depending on the provider.

Because Metro, my provider, has voice and data in different bands, you can jam data and not affect voice

When my neighbor did that to keep his kids off their cellular internet at dinner time, he had Metro so he could do that.

Homeriver, the management company here, told me they could only do something if he started interfering with voice calls.

I do expect Congress to put an item in.the CFAA about that someday.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"…is it a stretch to assume we all will be wearing ankle bracelets in the near future?"

That’s a stretch, indeed.

After all, given that you probably own a cellphone registered to your name the government can already track all your movements in real-time. The telemetry data is stored and retrievable by a few key presses.

Anonymous Coward says:

All it will take is a few lawsuits for ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

since this app effectively is designed to instigate sleep deprivation as a form of extra-judicial punishment. Doesn’t matter if negligence is the cause, some of these people could potentially make MILLIONS suing the government for extreme, malicious constitutional violations if they get the right type of shark lawyers.

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