Pin It

Jail To-Go: Ankle Bracelets Could be the Next Great Law Enforcement Tool, if the City Doesn't Get Defeated by Data 

Wednesday, May 21 2014

Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow — a local B-list celebrity, fawning mafiosi, and convicted murder-conspirator and drug-runner — wore a court-ordered ankle bracelet for years while allegedly running a $2.29 million money-laundering fiefdom in Chinatown. During that time, he curried favor with politicians, posted scads of photographs on Facebook, and quietly waited for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to process his S-visa application (the so-called "snitch" visa for government informants), which would make him a permanent resident.

He also lobbied state Sen. Leland Yee to get the bracelet removed — a proposal that Yee ultimately rejected. Chow would remain ensconced within a well-defined pocket of San Francisco, his movements tracked, and documented, by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officer. Per the feds' exceedingly detailed affadavits, that didn't stop him from moving contraband.

By overseeing a secret network in plain sight of law enforcement, Chow came to illustrate one of the shortcomings of a technology that some city officials hail as an antidote to over-incarceration. Ankle bracelets gather data about a convict's whereabouts, keeping him or her within a circumscribed area and providing automated detention. But someone still has to keep watch. Unless that data is carefully analyzed, it reveals little about what the wearer is actually doing.

Still, local politicians are aggressively pushing for these devices. In 2013, the city had 359 people on electronic monitors — its highest number in five years. That June, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi began crusading for legislation that would broaden his authority to release people from jail and put them on devices, whether or not they'd been deemed "low-risk" by the courts. Stumping for the ordinance at a February public safety meeting, he told city supervisors that the monitors had spared the city 24,362 days of jail custody in 2013, which translates into considerable savings: It costs about $135 a day to keep someone in jail. In comparison, monitors cost around $1,200 to $1,300 a pop, but in most cases, the convicts are stuck footing the bill. (Proponents of electronic monitoring hew to a doctrine of personal responsibility; they believe restitution — even to a jailer or taxpayers — is the first step toward recognizing one's misdeeds.)

So, ankle bracelets could divert tons of money back into city coffers. "Certainly, if you're using it to release people from jail, there's a return on investment," says San Francisco's Chief Probation Officer, Wendy Still.

If the sheriff's proposal moves forward, San Franciscans may see the beginnings of an increasingly robotized criminal justice system. Progressive politicians roundly support the devices; Public Defender Jeff Adachi contends that they're still "severely under-used." On May 1, the city inked a new deal with correctional vendor LCA Services ("LCA" stands for "Leaders in Community Alternatives"), whose president, Linda Connelly, is gearing up to shill more tracking bracelets, transdermal alcohol detectors, and other penal apparatuses. Per its contract, LCA has three years to wring a maximum of $2 million out of the city.

Ankle monitors promise a brave new world for San Francisco, and yet the hype around them fits right into a historical pattern. San Francisco has a reputation for latching onto the latest and greatest policing technologies — including surveillance cameras, gunfire detection microphones, and the crime-mapping system CompStat — only to find out later that they don't work, or provide a redundant service, or aren't the salve they purport to be.

San Francisco has already done a remarkable job of reducing its jail population by steering inmates into rehabilitation programs and cutting drug prosecutions in half. Whereas other regions are desperate to alleviate overcrowding, San Francisco's jail is running at a 30-50 percent vacancy rate. Politicians are gearing up to build a new jail downtown, which the city might not be capable of filling — a good problem to have.

And now, electronic monitoring is poised to become the next big innovation. It could change San Francisco's law enforcement strategy, allowing nonviolent offenders to live at home, clearing the jail, and saving thousands of dollars in the process. Or, it could burden the city with a population of criminals it's unable to supervise — and oceans of data it's unequipped to paddle through.

But the temptation of innovation is there, and with a hell of a sales pitch: While other devices merely collect crime data, a GPS-equipped ankle bracelet promises to obviate the demand for penal infrastructure. Why lock people in cells when their whole prison experience could be condensed into one piece of wearable gadgetry?

Fine-boned and stern, with a flinty Alabama accent, Linda Connelly probably could have hawked any household product to the citizens of San Francisco. But her focus is corrections. Over four decades of working in the criminal justice system, she held positions in a federal prison and a halfway house, before getting fixated on GPS tracking technology. Connelly founded LCA in 1991, and has since established herself as a big player in the industry, delivering GPS devices, alcohol trackers, drug testing, and case-management services to eight California counties.

Holding court in her Market Street office on a recent Tuesday, Connelly showcases LCA's latest offerings: two black rubber policing devices, arrayed on a coffee table next to a glass of tea and a bouquet of dried flowers. One, the Omnilink GPS bracelet, is a thick band of interwoven tamper wires with a giant box on the end; the other, called a SCRAM device, detects alcohol as it evaporates off the wearer's skin.

"Over the years there's been a huge debate," Connelly says, pointing at the GPS box. "Do we make them small and unobtrusive so there's not a stigma? Or do we make them big and obnoxious, like a Scarlet Letter?"

The current versions fall somewhere in between, she says. They're just small enough to hide under a baggy pant leg, but big enough to stand out if someone dons a dress or shorts — which was the case with a bracelet-wearer sitting in the lobby that morning. His monitor bulged conspicuously over a blue Adidas sandal.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan has been a staff writer at SF Weekly since 2013. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular