The Threat of the Tag

Fanella Morris

The crisis in prison overcrowding and conditions combined with a commitment to a strong ‘law and order’ policy has sent the Government in search of new sentencing options. One which seems to fulfil its desire for a tough but ‘community-based’ punishment is the use of electronic tags. This American, Spiderman-inspired device consists of an anklet fitted with a radio transmitter which sends a signal to a central monitoring station; if the tagged individual moves outside a defined area (usually 100 hundred yards from the home phone) the signal is interrupted and they are liable to be arrested. This imposes effective house-arrest on an individual up to 24 hours a day for a potentially much lower cost than keeping them in prison.

Although the tag is new to the UK penal system, thousands of offenders have been tagged in the US, where the systems have been in operation for about 6 years. In both countries the tag has found little favour with prison reformers or many of its wearers. It is more often used to impose stringent restrictions on the liberty of those who might have expected a non-custodial sentence than to provide a community-based option for those who expect prison; so the prisons are not likely to be much emptier. In the US too, many wearers have been required to pay $8-10 per day hire fee, which may have helped costs but is of doubtful rehabilitative value.

As well as these significant practical failures civil liberties campaigners have fundamental objection to the tag. The use of state electronic surveillance in an individual’s home is such a radically intrusive measure as hardly to bear comparison with customary loss of privacy and liberty in prison. The very place which is typically held up as private and free from society’s intervention now becomes its inhabitants own personal cell, regulated by the state. Punishment at home, surrounded by neighbours and family rather than in an institution, is dramatically more stigmatising. A wearer remains permanently on show, identifiable as a wrong-doer.

The tag supplants, with technology and monitoring, many of the constructive solutions to offending which focus on development and rehabilitation; personal contact with trained probation officers is replaced with centralised monitoring by security staff.

The use of these untrained security staff introduces commercial firms into the heart of the UK penal system. Private companies have vested economic interests distinct from those of the public or the offender, and it is undesirable that issues of sentencing involving restrictions on liberty should be influenced by such interests. That firms will seek to influence the courts is evident from Marconi briefing document which advised the Nottingham bench in a tagging trial upon ‘the basic criteria for allowing/selecting potential wearers’. In the long run companies will encourage the court to use the tag in as many cases as possible, by advocating its use on potentially dangerous prisoners or on those who did not deserve it.

A tagged individual has to consent to employees of a private firm entering his/her home. Questions arise as to how these employees account for any damage or harm to the tag-wearer or to the public. The government has refused to answer parliamentary questions about the privatized remand centre at Harmondsworth on the ground of commercial confidence. If this approach is extended to questions about the use of electronic tagging, private firm will not be publicly answerable for their role in the penal system. Moreover, the chain of responsibility is further disrupted by government contractors subcontracting as Marconi has to Securicor. Employees of both these firms have access to the individual’s home and possibly to social enquiry reports stored on computer at the court.

So far in the UK tagging has only been used on a largely experimental basis in trials during 1989 on remand prisoners in Nottingham, North Tenyside and Tower Bridge. These experiments were not an unqualified success - false alarms were sent to the central monitor when wearers took baths, or in unusual weather conditions; in more than half of the cases the wearer absconded or breached a condition of their bail. The more unattractive ‘failures’ of the US such as corruption in the security firm tendering the tagging service have not yet manifested themselves here.

Despite these mediocre showings however the British Government is determined to press ahead with introduction of tagging and is even going to extend it to young offenders in their teens. The expansion of tagging is unlikely to stop there though; The Adam Smith Institute has recommended the tagging of all ‘habitual criminals’, and two local health authorities are using the tag for the elderly infirm and mentally disordered in their care. The prospect of new markets for technology and security firms and greater control for the state may be too difficult to resist.

Fenella Morris
Fenella Morris is a member of the executive of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and she has been researching electronic tagging.



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