Prison is so passé -

Prison is so passé

Why isn’t Canada embracing tracking technologies rather than lockups?


There are so many things to dislike about Stephen Harper’s unnecessary, anachronistic, ruinously expensive, and mean-spirited omnibus crime bill that at least one of them has been largely overlooked: the bill will bring an end to the option of house arrest as a “conditional sentence” for a large range of offences. What that means is that many small time crooks, including grow-op gardeners, joy-riders and laptop thieves may find themselves behind bars, whereas they might have otherwise been constrained to their homes and places of work.

This is a shame, and not just because prison is, as Elizabeth May pointed out, “crime school” for minor hoodlums who might otherwise have found their way.

An end to house arrest will also mean that the Canadian justice system will be unable to make use of technologies that make it cheaper and more effective than ever to keep an eye on criminals without locking them up. I speak specifically of a new generation of GPS-enabled tracking devices.

House arrest was once a difficult thing to enforce- corrections officers would have to randomly and sporadically check in on convicts to make sure they were following the rules. Later, ankle monitors were introduced that could measure the distance between a wearer and a receiving unit placed in his or her home. The unit used radio signals to measure distance, and then used phone lines to relay the data to the authorities.

Today, GPS units on cellular networks allow for a much more sophisticated approach to house arrest. Convicts can move between their homes and workplaces  and other pre-ordained locations without triggering false alarms. Any small deviation goes recorded, and major deviations—like, say, a drug dealer approaching a schoolyard, can set off instant alarms. Additional devices can constantly monitor blood-alcohol levels.

If left completely unmonitored by actual humans, these devices would likely be circumvented. Cunning criminals will adapt and find ways to break their sentences without triggering alerts. But coupled with human oversight and random in-person check-ups, modern house arrest can be pretty difficult to outsmart.  If crimes are committed while a monitoring device is worn, alibis will have to match perfect digital records of a convicts’ whereabouts.

In the U.S., the ballooning prison population resulting from the war on drugs has pushed these technologies forward.  It would be nice if Canada could benefit from them without repeating American history.

Jesse Brown is the host of’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


[Main article image: Tim Pearce/Flickr]


Prison is so passé

  1. This part of the bill makes clear that the goal of the legislation is to fill prisons, thus justifying the building of more prisons.

    • Creates Jobs!

  2. “In the U.S., the ballooning prison population resulting from the war on drugs has pushed these technologies forward.  It would be nice if Canada could benefit from them without repeating American history.”

    Just one thing, is the US prison population a result of the ‘war on drugs’ or a result of moving to for-profit prisons and allowing corporations access to cheap labor?

    Make no mistake, this is what Harper is up to. He wants to privatize the prison industry.

    • Creates Jobs!

    • both the war on drugs and the privatization of the industry; and criminalizing a larger and larger population DOES create jobs… the low paid non-unionized poverty level ones

  3. Ok, so the omnibus crime bill is a wasteful, regressive sop to the hard right that flies in the face of all evidence.

    But ask yourself: if it saves the seat of even one Conservative MP, won’t it all have been worth it?

    • Good one!

      Prison is forcing someone to sit and do nothing by paying someone to sit and watch him do nothing.  It’s great for the economy!

      • Creates Jobs!

    • But they’ve already proven they can save an MP’s seat for only 50 million. They did it in Muskoka. That was ‘way cheaper than this scheme will turn out to be.

  4. Unlike prisons, devices like these fail to appeal to the Conservative base, as they allow the convicted criminals to live in their own homes and therefore not experience enough punishment for their misdeeds. If these devices were web-enabled to allow law-abiding Canadians to deliver electric shocks to the wearers at their convenience, I’m sure the appeal to the base would increase. Modern, tech-enabled barbarism at an economical price.

    • Is Flogging Less Cruel Than Jail Time?

      Peter Moskos is an American criminologist whose experiences and research, first as a Baltimore beat cop and later as a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, have shown him just how immorally counterproductive, ruinously expensive and profoundly stupid his country’s prison system is. 

      While there are offenders he would imprison for years, partly as punishment and mostly for public safety, far too many Americans are in jail for no good reason. “Lock up an active pedophile and there are fewer raped children, yes, but locking up a drug dealer just creates a job opening.” 

      Knowing what you know about prison, dear reader, he writes, which would be your choice (should you ever be convicted of a felony) between the options he proposes for non-violent criminals: either serve your time or accept two flesh-lacerating, Singapore-style blows from a rattan cane per year of your sentence?

  5. The problem with previous versions of these is they were more police-resource intensive than jail.  A problem here, if you are going to be governed by a heavy handed RW base, is our sentencing and judicial system doesn’t punish crimes that harm quality of life.  Why isn’t weed legal?  Same for E, zoomers, uppers, downers, meth, coke….could just punish the repeated violence.  Even better, could document and punish violence against strangers.  I wouldn’t call joy-riders small time crooks.  I wouldn’t call weed growers crooks at all.  A mold hazard.  Someone told me you can put 150 plants in a basement.  Mandatory sentences for oil sands employees.

    • ….if someone commits minor violent acts on drugs, give the opportunity for drug testing, and only then imprison.  If someone can work on drugs why even bother them?  That’s why I’m only hard against heroin and crack.  With the stimulants, they may act criminal while high and while coming down.  With opiates are more likely to be only a threat coming down (withdrawal).  I’d guess a person who isn’t one of 4% with psychosis (or susceptibility I forget) commits fewer crimes on weed.  Might withdraw like with coffee or smokes.  This is a health concern.  There should be free cab rides and no waiting list for detox. Treat misbehaviour on drugs like license demerits if no one is being traumatized.  I had a co-worker coming down from weed or something all the time.  He tried to get me to work unpaid overtime and peed on the toilet seat.  1/2 hr of janitorial duties would’ve been an appropriate supervisor penalty, not jail.

      • …big stolen car smashup today, at least one officer injured.  Other people buying weed and getting high didn’t make the news.  I know who I’d rather have police attention to.

        • This is actually an argument FOR incarceration (at least of “joy riders”, whom Macleans would set loose on our roads).

  6. At least incarceration will stop  “joy-riders” from spreading the misery of death.

  7. My wife is scheming on how my GPS device will trigger an alarm whenever I go to a golf course.

  8. John Stuart Mills, a great thinker, once said: “not all conservatives are stupid people.  However, all stupid people are conservatives.”  Harper’s medieval approach to justice may support this statement.