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Is This the Modern Prison?

| November 29, 2010

The last issue of The Atlantic Monthly featured a fascinating article on the use of GPS monitoring as a more effective – and less costly – alternative to prison.  The author of the piece, Graeme Wood, analogizes GPS surveillance to philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of The Panopticon.  He writes:

“Inside the Panopticon (the name is derived from the Greek word for “all-seeing”), the prisoners are arranged in a ring of cells surrounding their guard, who is concealed in a tower in the center. The idea is that the guard controls the prisoners through his presumed observation: they constantly imagine his eyes on them, even when he’s looking elsewhere. Bentham promoted the concept of the Panopticon for much the same reasons that spur criminal-justice innovation today—a ballooning prison population and the need for a cheap solution with light manpower demands. Whereas the guard in Bentham’s day had only two eyes, however, today’s watcher can be virtually all-seeing, thanks to GPS monitoring technology.”

The rest of the article, in which Wood digs into the theory, technology, and practice of GPS monitoring makes for interesting reading.

Nevertheless, GPS surveillance is certainly not a panacea.  For instance, violent criminals and sex offenders should not be given GPS monitored probation – they should be put in prison.  For some lower-level offenders, however, GPS increasingly looks like a more sensible alternative.

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