Electronic Monitoring


Electronic monitoring of nonviolent criminal offenders who are placed under home confinement has become a popular alternative to incarceration. In 2005, business executive and TV personality, Martha Stewart, became the unwilling “poster woman” for this technology. Referring to the ankle bracelet she was required to wear, she stated during a Web chat (March 14, 2005) from her estate that “I hope none of you ever has to wear one.”

Monitoring provides a convenient sentencing alternative because it is a punishment less harsh than incarceration but more strict than minimally supervised probation. However, the original goal of electronic monitoring was not to punish offenders but to provide a means of rewarding prosocial, noncriminal behavior.

Early experimental work with monitoring devices was done by a group of graduate students and volunteers at Harvard in the 1960s. My twin brother, Ralph Kirkland Gable (Schwitzgebel), obtained a patent (#3,478,344) with William S. Hurd in 1964, and we published an article that year outlining how such devices could be used. [1] Here are two photographs of the project developed by the Harvard group; it was called “Streetcorner Research.” [2]



An additional photo directly below shows an early version transmitter and battery pack.  A truck load of surplus missile-tracking equipment used for the base-station; it attracted the attention of the Cambridge, MA, city police who seemed a bit jealous that we had better equipment than they did.  The antenna of the system was mounted on the roof of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church (whose minister was the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School).   The control panel of the tracking equipment had three buttons that attracted considerable attention from visitors– “Search,” “Tract,” and “Destroy.”  (The “Destroy” button was disabled.)

SCOPE circa 1968-70 004 (2)

SCOPE circa 1968-70

SCOPE circa 1968-70 003

After graduating, I moved to the Los Angeles area, and mimicked (with less success) what my brother had done in Cambridge.  I devised with Richard Bird a belt- mounted transceiver that was capable of sending and receiving tactile signals. See photos below.

Two-way communication with juvenile offenders was possible within a circumscribed geographical area without the need for fixed transceivers because we set-up a small FCC-licensed experimental radio station.

I wrote an article in the April 1969 issue of Psychology Today about the invention. The article was entitled “Belt from Big Brother.” (The magazine editors actually created the scary title without my knowledge.) A more informative and scholarly article was published in 1970.3

In the 1980s, Kirk established a system in Thousand Oaks, California, under the auspices of a nonprofit research trust (Life Science Research Group, Inc.) that provided customary monitoring for offenders using a secure ankle band. A unique feature of this system was a computer-based electronic bulletin board that would allow up to 20 participants and a network information manager to send and receive email from specified locations. See the simplified diagram.

The design philosophy focused on the possibility of establishing a community-based network that would encourage members to share the responsibility of monitoring and giving encouragement to other members by facilitating planned and unplanned beneficial social interactions while preserving public safety. One might think of it, in contemporary terms, as a “Bluetooth AA.” The photo below of one of the Life Science Group participants was taken on December 31, 1989.


We are convinced that supervised monitoring with electronic devices should include a positive social groups. What is generally missing in probationary monitoring or in community re-entry programs are unexpected rewards, friendship, and a sense of social accomplishment. Modern communication technology now provides more options for arranging the social components of such programs. We wrote an article, entitled “Electronic Monitoring: Positive Intervention Strategies” in Federal Probation in June 2005 which outlined some of our ideas.  The reader will note that my focus has been on the rehabilitative potential of this technology.  In contrast, the dominate use of the technology continues to be a relatively simple and secure way to know the location of ex-offenders or persons waiting for trial.

We continued our efforts to convince corrections personnel in the winter (January) 2007 issue of the American Probation and Parole Association’s journal, Perspectives, and in the winter (February) 2007 issue of the National Association of Probation Executives’ journal, Executive Exchange And here’s an article that has a bit more history and predicts the future of electronic monitoring Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. A one-page article by Gary Wolf appeared in the November, 2007, issue of Wired magazine. An article in Corrections Compendium (volume 32, number 5) has a list of a dozen probation or parole programs that use positive incentives. A brief summary of this early history of monitoring appeared in The Psychologist (U.K) in November 2011 titled “Tagging: An Oddity of Great Potential.” British Psychology Society.  Similarly, Reason Magazine, May 24, 2012 summarized some history and then suggested that current social media might be useful in implementing positive strategies.  The Lighter Side of Electronic Monitoring – Reason.com.  Probably the most comprehensive  summary of the history of electronic monitoring of offenders (as of 2016), if  you don’t mind immodesty on my part, appeared in an Australian publication, the Journal of Technology in Human Services, 2016, vol 34, under the title “Remaking the Electronic Tracking of Offenders into a ‘Persuasive Technology.'”

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My co-author and twin brother, Kirk, passed away on January 18, 2015, while this article was in press.  Unfortunately, there are many good people whose names have not been mentioned due to space limitations or my inadvertent oversight.  I extend my apologies.  A shorter version of this history appeared in the March 2015, vol 27, issue of The Journal of Offender Monitoring with the title “The Ankle Bracelet is History: An Informal Review of the Birth and Death of a Monitoring Technology.”

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I continue, with notable futility, to push for the use of positive incentive with electronic monitoring. See this University of Illinois journal article, “Left to their Own Devices,” in 2009: Journal of Law, Technology & Policy. The most sustained, careful. and thoughtful work on the whole issue of electronic monitoring and its effectiveness (or lack thereof) has been done by Prof. Marc Renzema at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. See, for example, his 2010 paper Renzema evaluation. For a really rich source of data on this topic, check-out his website at renzema@kutztown.edu.

I expect that smartphones will generally replace anklets for some offenders if security issues can be resolved.  For example, the smartphone will be tethered by a Bluetooth or radio frequency link to a wristlet, or eventually into a ring.  Some examples are given in my article which follows below, “On Their Last legs,” in IEEE Spectrum, August, 2017, pp. 44-49. 

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1 Schwitzbebel, R. K., Schwitzgebel, R. L., Pahnke, W. N., & Hurd, W. S. (1964). A program of research in behavioral electronics. Behavioral Science, 9, 233-238. (We shortened our name to “Gable” in 1982.)

2 Schwitzgebel, R. K. (1965). Streetcorner Research: An Experimental Approach to the Juvenile Delinquent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3 Schwitzgebel, R. K., & Bird, R. M. (1970). Sociotechnical design factors in remote instrumentation with humans in natural environments. Behavior Research

Methods and Instrumentation, 2, 99-105. Reprinted in R. L. Schwitzgebel and R. K. Schwitzgbebel (Eds.), Psychotechology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.

4 Gable, R. K. (1986). Application of personal telemonitoring to current problems in corrections. Journal of Criminal Justice, 14, 167-176.

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