The conditions within the Fulton County Jail system in Atlanta, Georgia, are extremely poor. Inmates are forced to sleep on the floor using plastic trays, cell doors are broken, and leaked water creates hazardous situations. In September of last year, a person was found deceased and covered in bed bugs.
To address these issues, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, responsible for managing several jails in the area, has received additional funding and is implementing an advanced surveillance system. This system utilizes hundreds of sensors embedded in the jail walls, which communicate with wristbands given to the inmates using radio frequencies. Developed by Talitrix, a Georgia-based company, this system can track an inmate’s heart rate, determine their location every 30 seconds, and generate 3D images showing interactions between individuals. Documents obtained by WIRED through a public records request reveal the system’s functioning and provide insights into its inner workings.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and Talitrix argue that this system can enhance efficiency in understaffed jails and improve overall safety by alerting staff to potential health issues or suicide attempts through heart rate monitoring. Critics, however, contend that such monitoring technologies increase surveillance on inmates without addressing fundamental problems within the criminal justice system.
The Talitrix system is one of several electronic monitoring devices being implemented in the vast network of local jails across the United States, and it may be one of the most advanced ones. While some focus on identifying suicide risks, others use manually scanned RFID chips. As jails and prisons grapple with staff shortages, they are increasingly turning to automation for monitoring and controlling incarcerated individuals. Simultaneously, academic researchers have pointed out that inmates are among the most intensely surveilled, data-driven, and documented populations, without the ability to opt out.
“Within the Walls”
Talitrix has developed a tracking system comprising two components: physical infrastructure, including sensors embedded in the jail and wearable devices similar to Fitbits, and software that enables corrections officers to monitor the collected data and receive alerts.
According to company documents, Talitrix began collaborating with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in September 2021. Initially, they conducted a trial of the system in one of the region’s jails during the technology’s development phase, and since February of the current year, they have been expanding its implementation. The documents indicate that a total of 750 sensors, costing $350 each, will be installed, along with 1,000 wristbands, priced at $130 each. The sensors are positioned throughout the jail but not within individual cells. The utilization of the software entails significant annual costs.
The plan involves approximately 450 inmates wearing the wristbands at the main Rice Street jail in the region, including the psychiatric and acute medical wards. Talitrix CEO Justin Hawkins states that the Sheriff’s Office has been testing the wristbands and intends to further deploy the technology, although the timeline for full implementation is yet to be determined, according to Lt Col Jarrett Gorlin from the Sheriff’s Office.
The biometric wristbands, specifically designed for use in jails and prisons, resemble sports watches but lack screens or GPS capabilities. Hawkins explains that they can track an individual’s heart rate (with future versions including oxygen tracking) and communicate with the wall-mounted sensors. He notes that the system combines several radio frequencies with the company’s algorithm.
Each wristband has a battery life of 30 days and features a locking mechanism that inmates cannot remove. If a wristband is cut, it sends an alert to prison staff within 15 seconds. The system can track inmate locations, recording the duration spent in cells or specific areas like visitation rooms. According to a statement of work between Talitrix and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, the software should include functionalities such as maintaining spacing between designated inmates and creating and archiving inmate movement. It is important to note that the devices are not certified as medical products.
Screenshots of Talitrix’s software, named “Inside the Walls,” display a dashboard that allows correction officers to view the number of inmates in each jail area, inmate names, jail cell numbers, and heart rate details (including the last recorded rate and a graph of heart rate over time). It also indicates the number of hours an inmate has spent inside their cell compared to outside. The software includes a tab for listing alerts triggered by significant drops or spikes in heart rate.
One feature of the system is a 3D reconstruction of the jail facility called a “facility replay,” which depicts the positions of inmates represented by generic human characters at specific times. Powerpoint slides show inmates standing in close proximity to each other.
James Kilgore, a media fellow at the nonprofit MediaJustice who has written about electronic monitoring and experienced six years of incarceration, finds the technology concerning, stating that it represents a disconcerting advancement in using technology to manage jail populations. Kilgore worries about the potential consequences if false heart rate data is used against an inmate. He raises concerns about the gathering of biometric data unrelated to the reasons individuals are incarcerated. Gorlin from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office contends that heart rate data is employed solely as an indicator of potential health issues and does not affect personal privacy.
Gorlin adds that tracking inmate location and movement can ensure accurate counts and potentially alert jail personnel when two individuals come into proximity, potentially preventing violent acts.
Hawkins explains that the company’s software calculates an average heart rate over a minute and employs predictive analytics based on an individual’s typical heart rate patterns. Both the CEO and the Sheriff’s Office official emphasize that biometric and location data is view-only
Surveillance and monitoring are fundamental aspects of prisons and jails worldwide. Anne Kaun, a professor of media and communication studies, notes that these institutions have historically served as testing grounds for surveillance technologies before their wider implementation. For instance, Sweden was one of the first places to use CCTV in prisons during the 1950s, without much consideration for privacy concerns. Kaun suggests that a similar pattern is emerging today with new technological advancements.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of monitoring technologies in criminal justice systems and immigration enforcement. Officials in Hong Kong have proposed the use of facial recognition and robot wardens to address staff shortages, while GPS ankle monitors and tracking apps are increasingly utilized for monitoring released individuals. Face recognition smartwatches have been suggested in the UK, and Chinese prisons employ “emotion-tracking” technology. However, many of these systems have proven to be error-prone, untested, or produce inaccurate results, particularly for individuals with darker skin tones.
Pilar Weiss, the director of the Community Justice Exchange, highlights the constant development of various monitoring systems within the sprawling and largely privatized US prison system. With over 4,000 suppliers providing services, there is little standardization in the systems used in jails.
According to Nicol Turner Lee, there is likely to be an expansion of monitoring systems in the United States due to the perception that technology can provide a quick fix. However, the fragmented nature of state-level privacy laws means there may be insufficient guidance and safeguards in place to protect people’s data. Turner Lee adds that there is an implicit assumption that the rights of those affected by the criminal justice system and those incarcerated do not matter.
Talitrix CEO Justin Hawkins states that his company is in the process of signing up more facilities to use their system and is also in discussions with other state-level correctional facilities. Hawkins believes that the current treatment of inmates in the United States is unacceptable, citing issues such as high incarceration rates, deteriorating prison infrastructure, corruption among officials, and staffing shortages. He suggests that the best approach is to expedite the release of individuals who do not pose a threat to society.
James Kilgore, on the other hand, argues that simply implementing technology in the system is unlikely to improve the quality of life in prisons. He advocates for human-centered solutions, such as policy changes and programs that address the underlying issues with the justice system. Kilgore emphasizes that placing technology within a punitive system will only perpetuate punitive outcomes.