Last week the cutting edge of criminal justice technology shifted to Gage County, Nebraska. Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson, who presides over the county’s 30- bed jail, announced that Gage would be the site for the world pilot of a suicide detection device called AliveLock. The system consists of a smart bracelet called a RiskWatch, connected to a forefinger shield much like those used to measure blood oxygen. The RiskWatch will measure various vital signs and trigger an alarm through a computer if the technology indicates the individual is in danger of committing suicide. Despite its small population, Gage County Jail has had two suicides in the past year.
The inventor of AliveLock, Melanie Bailey, used to work under Gustafson as a corrections officer at Gage County. She is also co-founder of Pacific Place Enterprises, the Lincoln-based firm that is marketing the device. Bailey intended that the device help “county jails find ways to safely house” people with mental illness. She indicated AliveLock could be especially effective in old style jails with bars and numerous other points where individuals could potentially hang themselves. In a telephone interview, Gustafson said he thought the RiskWatch “could really help the correction field across the country.” He also predicted it would make Bailey a “rich woman” one day.
AliveLock represents the latest advance in a rising trend toward technologies of carceral control. The search continues for a techno-corrections miracle to reverse the disastrous consequences of more than three decades of mass incarceration. In a troubled criminal justice sector increasingly dominated by the discourse of evidence-based and research-based solutions, technology offers a simplistic but ultimately ineffective counter to prison abolitionists and advocates of Justice Reinvestment who insist that mass incarceration is grounded in a racialized criminalization of the poor.
The advent of AliveLock also reflects the enormous battle carceral facilities have with the growing number of mentally people in custody. According to a 2014 report by national advocacy group TAC, in 2012 jails and prison housed over 350,000 people with serious mental illness, more than ten times the number residing the nation’s rapidly disappearing mental health institutions. Moreover, suicides have become almost commonplace, as the recent exposure of suicides in Riker’s Island in New York demonstrates. Across the country, sheriffs and corrections officials are begging for more funding to add mental health pods onto their existing facilities. Even officials at San Quentin forwarded plans to add a psychiatric hospital to the prison’s Death Row. Attempts to complement existing prisons and jails with mental health facilities are seen by opponents as a vehicle for garnering continued funding for corrections in a climate where the time worn mantras of public safety and “tough on crime” have lost their public appeal. Though the producers have not yet made the price of AliveLock public, clearly it is a cheaper option than building new mental health beds.