Electronic bracelets for inmates stirs controversy

Print More

Capital News Service

LANSING – Quiana Lovett, an inmate at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, said she couldn’t believe Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “audacity” to propose wireless identification bracelets to track inmates inside state prisons.

Prison officials say the proposed movement trackers improve efficiency, but some advocacy groups and prisoners worry about human rights violations and if the devices are the best use of $10 million of state funds. 

“This sounds to me like yet another costly mechanism to continue allowing them to cover for the officers coming in here to do nothing other than to harass, humiliate, degrade and rape us of our basic humanity,” Lovett said in a statement she provided to the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice advocacy group that does anti-prison work, when the news of the proposed trackers came out. She’s serving a minimum of 16 years for second-degree murder. 

Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington wants to require inmates to wear electronic bracelets.

Department of Corrections

Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington wants to require inmates to wear electronic bracelets.

Heidi Washington, the state Department of Corrections director, describes the movement trackers as Fitbits for inmates. They would be scanned each time an inmate entered or left an area to ensure that prisoners are sticking to the itinerary they are given each day, that outlines the activities they have, whether that’s work, educational programs or medical treatment.

And they would help correctional officers figure out if one inmate harmed another because the bracelets can show where inmates are at the time of the injury. 

This electronic system would replace the paper itinerary system, in which prisoners get an individual printed schedule each day. 

“This is a part of our department that really hasn’t evolved, and probably one of the reasons why is it’s a big ask in terms of the dollar amount,” Washington said. “But it’s a really important ask because it’s going to create a safer environment for everybody.”

The state is taking cues from counties that have implemented or decided to use movement trackers in their jails. 

The Livingston County jail has been using movement trackers since 2018. Grand Traverse and Macomb counties are installing the systems. 

Grand Traverse County decided to use movement trackers in December after touring Livingston County’s jail. 

The age of the jail, which was built in the mid-1960s, was one of the big reasons his county opted for trackers, said Capt. Chris Barsheff of the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office. Another was that it saved time. 

“It’s difficult to manage activities because the facility is so sprawling, and this allows me to track our activities more efficiently and effectively, and it allows my supervisors to manage those activities from a single location,” he said.

The cost for installing the trackers and wristbands was $37,000, Barsheff said. He anticipates additional software installation costs.

Byron Osborn, the president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union for corrections workers, said movement trackers could cut down on expenses and waste.

But there are many unanswered questions about the system.

“How easy are these bands to remove?” Osborn said. “Would they be allowed to be removed for certain instances?”

And there are security questions, such as what happens if an inmate doesn’t want to comply, he said. “What happens now?” 

Osborn said what’s most important is rolling out the new programs slowly and with proper notification to inmates so they understand what’s happening, which he said will have to happen if the trackers are included in the governor’s approved budget. 

“Whether it’s something as simple as schedules during the day or food menus, itinerary processes, all of those things,” he said. “The department usually tries to give them as much preparation time as they can.” 

He said that helps reduce pushback from inmates because they are anticipating the change. 

Natalie Holbrook, the director of American Friends Service Committee’s criminal justice program, said concerns go beyond efficiency. 

“It seems like a shackling system within an already controlled environment,” she said. 

If the purpose of the movement trackers is purely for itinerary efficiency, a bracelet isn’t needed when an identification card could have the same capabilities, she said. The function of the bracelet seems to have a psychological effect on prisoners. 

Holbrook said the money should be spent instead on better food or increased educational programs. 

“Right now, they don’t have them,” she said. “I don’t care what the Department of Corrections says, people do not get into programs and educational programs until they are very near their out (release) dates.”

But Washington said the benefits of the trackers outweigh any of the perceived negatives. 

“This is prison, it is an environment that is very controlled for a reason,” she said. “It’s because our job is to run safe and secure prisons. We do that by separating people from society. While they are separated, it’s our job to make sure that they’re safe, and that our staff are safe.”

Lovett said if she has to wear a bracelet so corrections officers can track her, then they might as well release and track her so she can be a mother and grandmother to her family. 

“Gov. Gretchen, when we elected you, your main goal was to fix the damn roads,” Lovett said. “Well, how about your main goal this year is to fix the damn prison system.”

Comments are closed.