GOOD

Reconsidering the Ankle Monitor

Can the punitive technology be reimagined as a force for good?

In the 1960s, Robert Kirkland Schwitzgebel and his twin brother Ralph were psychology students at Harvard, interested in helping troubled, at-risk youth—“juvenile delinquents,” in the jargon of the era. Students of behaviorist and social philosopher B.F. Skinner, the brothers envisioned using modern tools to expand upon Skinner’s positive-reinforcement theories. To that end, Ralph and his colleague William Hurd dreamed up Patent No. 3,478,344: Behavioral Supervision System With Wrist Carried Transceiver. They even made prototypes with surplus missile-tracking equipment.

At the time, the idea of using wearable technology to curb antisocial behavior seemed like something out of science fiction. Half a century later, electronic monitoring is an established criminal justice tool in more than 30 countries. In the United States alone, an estimated 200,000 people—“offenders” is the accepted parlance, encompassing parolees, individuals under house arrest, and other scenarios—are wearing some form of ankle monitor right now. But this is hardly the world envisioned by the brothers, who later shortened their name to Gable.

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