How technology is used to expand the carceral state

The insidious transmogrification of a physical carceral system to a technological one.

In Prison by Any Other Name, Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law warn of the creeping expansion of the prison-industrial complex, moving beyond bars and cages into our communities. This process of extension has been aided by technology, with the use of bracelet monitors worn on the wrist or ankle being a particularly unsettling example. Indeed, after decades of dissent, there have been several other ‘alternatives to incarceration’ that have been hailed by governments and corrective services as effective ways of ‘managing’ our rapidly growing prison population.

Measures such as Intensive Correction Orders which see people placed in home detention, to psychiatric hospitals that detain people experiencing mental health crises, are often perceived to be a compassionate, more desirable alternative to incarceration. In reality, they are punitive measures that extend systems of incarceration under the guise of compassion/conditional freedom.

In 2019, 157 people in NSW were subjected to electronic surveillance in an effort to divert people from the prison system. However, as New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander writes, “you’re effectively sentenced to an open-air digital prison.” Stringent restrictions on mobility as well as stigmatisation of bracelet monitors make it nearly impossible for wearers to attain employment or housing, attend school and maintain a connection with social networks. 

Electronic surveillance disproportionately impacts Indigenous Australians, reproducing the racialised outcomes seen in prisons and custody services, including deaths in custody. Thus far, there have been at least three cases wherein an offender has died while being monitored, including an Indigenous man who died in 2011. An inquest found that out of fear of being reincarcerated, he began to inhale butane as a way to conceal his substance abuse.

Ankle monitors are one of many indicators of the growing trend of ‘e-carceration’ — intensifying state punishment through the use of new technologies. However, this shift has largely escaped public scrutiny. Ruha Benjamin explores this phenomenon in her book Race After Technology (2019). Labelling it the ‘New Jim Code,’ she observes how technology works to reinforce and reproduce racism while posing as neutral tools of progress. “The desire for objectivity, efficiency, profitability and progress fuels the pursuit of technical fixes across many different social arenas,” she writes. “[But] tech fixes often hide, speed up, and even deepen discrimination, while appearing to be neutral or benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era.”

Indeed, we are seeing a wave of technological solutions that purport to address various issues with our criminal justice system, such as the less documented use of predictive policing in Australia. Introduced by the NSW Police in 2005, the Suspect Target Managing Plan (STMP) uses an algorithm to calculate how likely a person is going to offend, categorising people as either low risk, medium risk, high risk or extreme risk. This information is used by police to intervene even before a crime takes place. 

Although police have been secretive about what information and criterion are used to classify people, similar technologies are based on indicators such as historical criminal activity, age and postcode. Such data reinforces existing racial hierarchies and frequently directs police to neighbourhoods with high Indigenous populations. A report by the Youth Justice Coalition of NSW found that out of the 213 people subject to an STMP nomination in 2014-15, 44% identified as Aboriginal. 

In one instance, David, a 15-year old Aboriginal young person, was singled out by the algorithm. Police cars routinely parked outside his family home, knocked on his door to question him and his family, and criticised his whereabouts. This caused ongoing problems for his family. One of David’s siblings developed an anxiety disorder and was unable to complete his HSC. His mother also reported that the constant police presence and stigma led to their lease not being renewed.

James, another young Aboriginal person who was also put on the STMP despite having no criminal record, was also subjected to repeated police attendances at his home. Justification for his searches often included the time of night and his location. One afternoon after being stopped, James questioned the police’s power to stop him. The police proceeded to capsicum spray and arrested him. In both these cases, predictive policing would have resulted in these young people being placed in a higher risk category for recidivism.

Despite being championed as preventative measures, there is little evidence that prison populations are dropping as a result of these punitive technologies. The number of prisoners continues to grow, Indigenous people remain over-represented, and it was found last year that in NSW, 50.6% of all people released during 2016-17 returned to prison within two years. Additionally, young people who are experiencing targeted policing experience distress and are finding participation in therapeutic justice and diversion programs like the Koori Court difficult.

Notably, the police target a person, they are not formally notified that they are on the list, there is no way for them to confirm their place on the list, and they cannot appeal their classification. This creates a new form of incarceration, one based on the presumption that one has already committed a crime and subsequently, the intrusive regulation of everyday life. In his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes that such asymmetrical surveillance measures are modern iterations of the ‘panopticon’ — 18th-century prisons designed to allow a single guard to observe all prisoners at once, without inmates being able to tell they were being watched. 

Such regulation is now being extended beyond law enforcement, with the ongoing trials of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) employed to restrict people’s economic freedom. After its introduction  in 2016, people under the CDC will see 80% of their welfare payments quarantined to a debit card, which cannot be used to buy alcohol, gamble or withdraw cash.

Although then social services minister Paul Fletcher argued that the card has the potential to “provide a stabilising factor in the lives of families with regard to financial management,” this outlook masks the card’s long-term harms and punitive nature. This form of income control is yet another technological fix that adopts a carceral logic, essentially trapping people into poverty. For a majority of people on the card, their existing financial challenges are exacerbated. Another independent study has found that participants often do not have enough cash for essential items, are unable to shop at preferred outlets or buy second-hand goods, and are having cards being declined even when they are supposed to work.

Furthermore, the Government has indicated that the card is selectively being rolled out in locations where there are high levels of both welfare dependence and drug and alcohol abuse. Once again, this disproportionately targets Indigenous people in remote areas. Before trials were extended last year, at least 78% of cardholders identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and this number is expected to increase as the program continues to be extended.

Social awareness about the carceral system is growing, particularly due to ongoing protests in the Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Justice movements. As people search for more humane or compassionate alternatives to physical imprisonment, technological solutions may seem enticing. But incarceration in itself does not work to stop crime, and technologies that are designed by and operate within the prison-industrial complex will only serve to strengthen carceral systems. As these technologies permeate more and more aspects of society, from the tracking of movements to restrictions on debit cards, their uses become more covert, entrenching state punishment as part of the architecture of everyday life.

We must not only be critical of our justice system, but also the ways it strives to expand its reach in new and horrifying ways. Technology has never been scientific and objective; in the context of carceral technologies, its design is inherently encoded with the oppression against black, Indigenous and people of colour. Rather than imposing more control, technologies should be utilised in areas where it has the potential to be emancipatory rather than punitive, including restorative justice and community services. But without dismantling our focus on retribution and punishment, no device or algorithm can slay away centuries of injustice.

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