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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Filed Under: ankle bracelets, apps, guardian, home confinement, prison, smartphone apps
Companies: telmate


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2020 @ 1:27pm

    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


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