Why Don't All Convicts Have GPS Trackers?

New York's escapees highlight the problems of prisoner geolocation.

More than a week into the manhunt for convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, there’s no sign of the escapees, who tunneled free from an upstate New York prison. ”We don’t know if they are still in the immediate area or if they are in Mexico by now,” Governor Andrew Cuomo told the media on Sunday. 

That’s not a reassuring soundbite.

Some politicians, including New York State Senator Kathy Marchione, have reacted to the jailbreak by voicing their support for offender tracking technology, either anklets or, more problematically, subdermal implants. That’s a tough sell that sounds like an easy sell. There’s a reason why every prisoner isn’t being constantly monitored. 

Well, five reasons actually.

You can take ankle bracelets off.

GPS monitors are, ideally, tamper-proof, alerting authorities should an attempt be made to cut or stretch the band. But they are no match for masterminds on the level of, say, Martha Stewart. “I know how to get it off,” she told Vanity Fair in 2005 about her federally-mandated accoutrement. “It’s on the Internet. I looked it up.” YouTube is a treasure trove of dubiously effective videos on how to remove ankle bracelets that come with even more dubious suggestions in the comments. 

Do these strategies work? Let’s put it this way: No one questioned Stewart when she was America’s most famous convict.

Prisons don’t have the budgets.

Federal and state prisons are constrained, like almost every government organization, by limited or shrinking budgets and ankle monitors can cost up to $12 a day. Not only is there a cost associated with the devices and software, the location data requires infrastructure and monitoring to be effective. If you’re gonna have monitors, you have to have someone monitoring them.

GPS data isn’t monitor-agnostic. 

George Drake, the president of offender tracking firm Correct Tech, told Vocativ in 2014 that federal monitors and state monitors “use disparate platforms to pool their data.” In April 2014, the lack of crosstalk did not trigger an alarm when two convicted sex offenders, both wearing monitors, allegedly raped and killed four women. If that incident didn’t trigger reform, it’s hard to imagine what will.

Implanted trackers can be taken out.

An analogy that is frequently trotted out for tracking convicts is that it would be similar to how we locate dogs. If worn, it’s a technologically sound comparison. Tracking pets relies on the implantation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchips, which are about the size of a rice grain, and embedded under the skin. Presumably pets are unable to remove the trackers under the skin, but humans would be able. Also it should be noted that RFID is distinct from GPS — GPS, as its name indicates, is a worldwide system that uses satellites, whereas an RFID must be within range of a scanning device to register. Anyone who made it to Mexico would be able to stay there (and wait for Morgan Freeman).

Implanting trackers is an ethical minefield.

In the same way that GPS tracking raises ethical questions about control and privacy, so do implants. In 2010, Virginia lawmakers made it illegal for employers or insurers to force someone to be implanted with a microchip, citing privacy concerns. Also, a fundamentalist Christian sponsor argued microchips could be the Mark of the Beast, per the Book of Revelation, so there’s that. 

In the eyes of the law, convicts lose certain civil rights, but forced operations are more extreme than the ability to buy a gun. And the prison staff performing implants might not always be up to snuff — even those who administer lethal injections have been decried as “complete idiots.” And doctors, who have take an oath to “do no harm,” might not be either available or affordable for operations.