Electronic Tagging: a Lucrative Business

Thursday 13 October 2011

In a dingy Indian jail cell forty-six years ago, Tom Stacey had an idea that would later develop into a billion-pound industry. The author and former Sunday Times foreign correspondent, jailed after crossing the government while working on a story, dreamt up an alternative to prison that he felt would be more humane: the electronic tag.

On his return to England he became a prison visitor and encouraged companies to create the device. He set up the non-profit Offender's Tag Association to lobby government and, after a short trial period and a flurry of controversy, electronic tagging was eventually introduced by New Labour in 1999.

In the first year 9000 tags were issued in England and Wales. This figure has steadily risen and to date more than 750,000 people have worn one. Between April 2010 – April 2011 alone 116,000 individuals were tagged, including over 6,000 young offenders, some as young as eleven. They are predominantly used to monitor prisoners released early on home detention curfews, but can also be issued as a community penalty.

The technology has attracted sustained criticism over the years, most notably from penal reform campaigners and probation officers who say it does not have any impact on reducing crime or reoffending rates. In September, however, justice secretary Ken Clarke revealed the coalition government was looking to further expand its use of tagging, inviting private companies to bid on over £1bn worth of contracts to provide the service.

For Stacey, who now spends his days working as a publisher based in west London, this was without doubt a positive move.

“It is clearly better than prison,” he says. “Prison is a pretty random and stupid way to handle people. It destroys the ability to get a job. It eliminates a person’s skills if they ever had any and it breaks up families if there ever was one.

“Prison is not just about depriving somebody of their liberty, it’s actually exposing them to all kinds of sustained abuse and fear … The tag is a much more humane alternative.”

Stacey, in fact, believes the government has not gone far enough. He wants to see it adopt high-tech, GPS satellite tracking tags – piloted by former home secretary David Blunkett in 2004 – which would monitor an offender’s every move.

“It’s highly unimaginative and timid of this government not to follow up on the initiative of David Blunkett on that pilot scheme,” he says.

The equipment used most commonly in England and Wales is less advanced, consisting of a tag, worn round the ankle or wrist, and a monitoring unit based usually in the home. Using a radio signal like a mobile phone, the tag acts as a transmitter that communicates with the monitoring unit, which in turn updates authorities, ensuring the offender does not breach their curfew by leaving home during a set period, though not monitoring their exact movements.

Part of the reason tags have proved popular with government is financial. It costs £1,063 to tag an adult for 90-days, which is over £5,000 less than the average cost of imprisoning a person for the same length of time. But despite the saving, according to critics including Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, tags are not value for money because there is little evidence that they reduce crime.

“Putting people on a tag does nothing to address the causes of crime and has no long-term impact on offending,” she says. “In a recent investigation into the use of tag on young people, many of the people we spoke to explained the dehumanising effects of being placed on tag. One young person described it ‘like being on a dog chain’. Others felt that it actually exacerbated the chances that they would be breached and returned to prison due to the amount of frustration it caused.”

Campaign groups have also expressed concern that under new government plans, the length of a curfew could be raised from its current twelve-hour-a-day maximum to 16 hours, and the order doubled in duration, from six months to twelve.

“Being confined can affect rehabilitation into the community, depending on the number of hours per day,” says Sally Ireland, a policy director for human rights organisation Justice.

“At 16 hours it really starts affecting employment, education and other opportunities to undertake meaningful activity. There should be a rational connection between the offending and the curfew, and it should be proportionate. It shouldn’t just be used as a form of house arrest or a way of putting somebody in custody harshly.”

Advocates of the tag argue that it can provide order and stability to sometimes chaotic lives, allowing an offender to reintegrate into society after committing a crime. However one former Birmingham University student, convicted of an offence midway through a computer science degree, told The Big Issue in the North being tagged for a four month period after an early release from prison had a negative effect on his education.

“I couldn’t go in to the [university] labs to use specialist software because of tag,” said the 29-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous. “It impacted my coursework without doubt. It wasn’t ideal and I did get special understanding from the university. They accepted that I couldn’t work for four and a half months because of the tag, but it did restrict me.”

In recent months tags have attracted negative publicity after being imposed for minor offences. In March a 66-year-old great grandmother from Sale was tagged after selling a goldfish to a 14-year-old boy (an animal welfare law passed in 2006 made it illegal to sell goldfish to under 16s). And it was reported in July that a 71-year-old woman from Hattersley was tagged for three months after refusing to have her sick dog put down.

Stacey concedes that “there will always be bizarre instances” and “eccentric judges” who impose an electronic tag in questionable circumstances. But he remains firm in his conviction that the technology will always be a better alternative to prison.

“Tagging is not a massive shock to the system,” he says. “Banging somebody up in prison is completely alarming and heaven knows what sort of consequences it could have.

“Magistrates don’t like sending people to jail … But if they’re not allowed to put them on the tag they won’t have a choice. Just ask a person: would you rather be on the tag or in prison? There’s only one answer you’ll get to that.”

This article first appeared in issue #897 of The Big Issue in the North magazine.

What the government say

According to the Ministry of Justice, the expansion of tagging will better protect communities and ensure offenders face “meaningful punishments” that help stop them reoffending.

A spokesperson said: "This is not about breaching human rights but safeguarding the community from offenders while giving them the opportunity to turn their lives around.

"The extension in the court's powers would enable the court to impose a curfew requirement more appropriately, based on those critical times when the offender is most likely to reoffend, but still allowing them to take part in full time education, courses and employment.

"All community sentences, whether for adults or children, must be tough whilst providing better value for the taxpayer."

About Electronic Tags

About 24,000 individuals are being electronically monitored in England and Wales at any one time. If an offender breaches the terms of their curfew, he or she can be sent back to court for further punishment. Since 2005 two suppliers, Serco and G4S, have been responsible for operating electronic monitoring services in England and Wales.

There are two types of curfew:

* Home Detention Curfew (HDC)

Often referred to as “house arrest”, home detention curfews are imposed by the prison governor as part of early release from prison. A prisoner can be released on HDC for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of 90 days earlier than they normally would be. Certain prisoners are excluded from the scheme, including violent and sexual offenders serving extended sentences and prisoners facing deportation.

* Curfew Order

Imposed by courts as a community punishment and in some cases an alternative to incarceration, curfew orders can be set for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of six months. The government is proposing that this is increased up to twelve months. A curfew usually requires an offender to stay at an agreed address between one to seven days a week for between two to 12 hours a day. This could increase to up to 16 hours a day under government proposals.

Vital Statistics

  • 24,000 – the average number of people being electronically monitored in England and Wales at any one time
  • 116,000 – the number of individuals tagged between April 2010 to April 2011
  • 750,000 – the total number of people that have been electronically monitored since 1999
  • 994 – the number of children aged between 11 and 14 tagged and placed on a curfew order in 2009/10
  • £1,063 – the cost of imposing a 90-day adult curfew
  • £6,500 – the cost of 90 days in prison
  • £1 billion – the amount the coalition government plans to spend on contracting out electronic tagging to private companies