Last year, an investigation by the US Department of Justice found that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MADOC) had been violating the Eighth Amendment of cruel and unusual punishment by failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to incarcerated people in crisis. The DOJ characterized MADOC’s mental health watch practices as restrictive, isolating, and involving unnecessarily harsh conditions.
Now, instead of halting the widespread practice of keeping emotionally-distressed incarcerated people in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours a day, MADOC is evaluating technology that will monitor people’s breathing and heart rate in real time.
On May 5, the department signed a contract with 4Sight Lab, a company that sells ankle and wrist shackles called "Custody Protect," according to public records. Using technology similar to a Fitbit, the platform relies on sensors to transmit a person’s vitals through a “cloud-based artificial intelligence software.” In an email, MADOC told Motherboard that as part of its suicide prevention efforts, it is “evaluating the feasibility of 4Sight Labs’ bracelets by inmates with specific health and safety needs whose care would benefit from wearing a bracelet to monitor physical function (e.g. heart rate).”
4Sight Labs did not respond to Motherboard’s inquiries.
If MADOC fully implements this technology, 4Sight Lab will join over 4,100 companies that profit off the US carceral system, including those that sell AI-assisted phone monitoring and GPS monitoring ankle bracelets.
Massachusetts appears to be the first state prison system to test this latest surveillance technology. But suicide surveillance sensors have been a long time in the making.
In 2008, former MADOC Commissioner Harold Clarke told a corrections oriented blog that suicide prevention sensor technology was in its infancy. In 2014, Motherboard reported on DOJ-funded pilot programs in Maryland and Massachusetts that tested radar-assisted motion sensors to detect an incarcerated person’s subtle body movements, such as the rise and fall of the chest. The devices, developed by General Electric, took off. Then in Dec. 2020, the Springfield Police Department tested 4Sight’s Custody Protect on its arrestees in a pilot program.
Whether the technology will catch on to other police departments, prisons or jails remains to be seen. But for authorities wary of lawsuits, it might not be a tough sell.
Suicides are the leading cause of death in U.S. jails, and are far more common behind bars than in the general population. Once an an incarcerated person is on suicide watch, they are stripped naked except for a smock, placed in a solitary cell, and aren’t provided with anything to keep their mind occupied. Treatment often consists of a five-minute check-in with a psychologist through a slat.
Some are skeptical that Custody Protect will ameliorate the mental health crisis in prisons and jails. Suicide shackles aren’t a proper substitute for genuine mental health care, James Kilgore, a fellow with Media Justice who has written extensively on electronic monitoring told Motherboard. “We're not going to deal with people's mental health issues by simply putting some kind of tracking device on them, and trying to gather biometric data,” he said. Instead, Kilgore thinks funds should be spent on prevention programs that limit people’s interactions with the carceral system in the first place, such as on adequate mental health services in communities.
The technology may even exacerbate mental health crises behind bars. Kilgore, who was incarcerated for six years, said he could easily imagine a scenario where an individual is four-point shackled—a common restraint technique in prisons where a person’s arms and legs are strapped to a bed or chair—based on a device’s false alarm. Other electronic monitoring devices, which have exploded in use for confining defendants and people convicted of crimes to their homes, are notoriously inaccurate. Alternately, he said, some guards will simply ignore the monitors, as is often the case with GPS tracking and other electronic monitoring devices.
Civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also warn that biometric data collected from electronic monitoring runs the risk of being bought and sold. “Whether it’s controlled by the state or by a private vendor, it’s often unclear what the restrictions are for access to that data, or what the regulations are for storage, use, information security, and retention,” the EFF wrote in a brief on electronic monitoring.
“It’s a fundamentally wrong approach to a really serious problem,” said Kilgore. “We have so many incarcerated people with mental health issues who are getting no treatment, and now they want a quick fix. Which is what this technology is.”