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Lost signals, disconnected lives: Offenders raise concerns over reliability of GPS monitoring

posted Mar 24, 2013, 3:16 PM by Lara K   [ updated Mar 24, 2013, 3:19 PM ]
Aaron Hicks displays his one-piece GPS tracking unit as his wife, Michelle, looks on. Hicks says tracking unit malfunctions and repeated jail stays have strained family bonds. 'If you're trying to move on with your life, and you've got these barriers, you just want to give up,' he says.
Aaron Hicks displays his one-piece GPS tracking unit as his wife, Michelle, looks on. Hicks says tracking unit malfunctions and repeated jail stays have strained family bonds. 'If you're trying to move on with your life, and you've got these barriers, you just want to give up,' he says. / Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative

James Morgan and Aaron Hicks were convicted of violent sex crimes and served many years in prison.

Now they are on parole, living in Madison neighborhoods, attending treatment groups and wearing global positioning system (GPS) ankle monitors — tracking that, under Wisconsin law, will continue for the rest of their lives.

But Morgan, Hicks and 11 other offenders interviewed for this report say that Wisconsin’s GPS tracking system repeatedly fails, registering false alerts and landing the offenders in jail although they have done nothing wrong.

“There are times when I’m afraid to leave whatever room I’m in, even to go to the bathroom,” said Morgan, 53, who served 26 years in prison for sexual assault and other crimes.

“I’m afraid an alert will go off and the police will show up at my door.”

On July 31, Morgan stood in his Madison bedroom with a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism photographer. On several occasions, his GPS monitor began flashing, indicating he was out of range, even though Morgan was in his own home and well within boundaries determined by his parole agent.

Offenders and their advocates say GPS breakdowns waste taxpayers’ money with unnecessary police work and lockups, and hamper offenders’ efforts to restore relationships with their families and retain jobs.

Even the people who make the GPS technology acknowledge that signals can be lost due to weather conditions, tall buildings and car travel.

A key legislator, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, said he was unaware of any problems with the state’s GPS monitoring system. But he was concerned by the Center’s findings, and said that an audit may be in order.

“Yes, I think it would be proper to inquire about the accuracy and effectiveness of our monitoring system if offenders are indeed experiencing these problems,” said state Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay.

But Bies, a former Door County sheriff’s deputy, added, “I really don’t have a whole lot of sympathy” for sexual offenders and whatever “inconvenience” they may have to endure.

As of February, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections was using GPS technology to track 638 offenders. According to DOC spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie, “The majority are sex offenders with a very small number being offenders convicted of domestic violence or other violent crimes.” She was unable to provide a breakdown.

And GPS monitoring in Wisconsin is projected to expand by nearly 50 percent over the next two years.

A Wisconsin state law passed last April, set to take full effect in 2014, allows judges to require GPS tracking for offenders who violate a domestic abuse or harassment temporary restraining order or injunction.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget recommends $10 million in new funding for expanded use of GPS tracking in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 — to monitor 783 individuals the first year and 939 the second year.

'Nothing's perfect'

Significant concerns about the reliability of GPS tracking have arisen in at least seven other states. The technology has been found both to sound alerts in error and miss offenders’ transgressions when they do occur.

Last September, an audit in Tennessee revealed massive oversights in the state’s GPS offender tracking system. More than 80 percent of alerts from GPS-monitored offenders “were not cleared or confirmed” by corrections agents, including alerts triggered after individuals appeared to enter prohibited areas such as parks and schools.

The Wisconsin DOC insists its system, and the devices it leases from Colorado-based Behavioral Interventions, or BI, are reliable.

“We are not aware of any ‘problems’ with our GPS monitoring system, and have several protocols in place to ensure that the integrity of our system is maintained,” Guthrie wrote in an email.

BI spokeswoman Monica Hook maintained that GPS technology is “a reliable alternative to incarceration” and that millions of people have worn the devices over the years.

Yet, she conceded, “it’s a manmade device. There are certain things that we safeguard against, but nothing’s perfect.” She said the Wisconsin DOC has “discretion” to determine how to handle alerts.

The DOC rejected the Center’s request for records regarding its protocols for dealing with dropped signals or false GPS alerts, saying offenders could use this information to “defeat the monitoring device.”

Guthrie said the agency does not keep statistics on how many alerts are triggered for GPS offenders, and does not track how often these result in offenders being incarcerated.

The DOC, she said, also has not conducted audits or quality reviews of its GPS program, which began operating in 2007.

Tracked offenders wear anklets at all times. Those with older, two-piece models must carry a portable GPS device that communicates with satellites and sends data to a central monitoring center in Madison. One-piece models include this device in the anklet. The DOC says the two-piece models are being phased out.

If an offender crosses into a restricted “exclusion zone,” an alert is sent to the monitoring center, which can investigate the problem. “One of the outcomes,” Guthrie said, “could be an apprehension or arrest.”

'You just want to give up'

In all, the Center interviewed a dozen sex offenders, and one person convicted of stalking, who complained of problems with their tracking units.

Sam Bratsven, convicted in 2001 of sexual assault of a child in Winnebago County, says challenges with his GPS unit have cost him jobs. In one of several discrimination complaints with the state Division of Equal Rights, he even has evidence.

In response to one such complaint, filed in 2011, an attorney for a company that chose not to hire Bratsven for a particular job noted that his two-hour application process was disrupted four to six times by his GPS device. The attorney said this “indicate(d) a high level of potential for disruption in any assignment where the applicant could be placed.”

His attorney, Andrew Phillips, said the case was settled out of court to the “satisfaction of both parties.”

Matthew Becker, convicted of sexual assaults in 2005 and 2007 in Winnebago County, estimates he has been jailed six times due to problems with his GPS equipment and that he has lost “thousands of dollars” in missed work.

The Center was able to obtain some records on GPS alerts for individual offenders. They show that Morgan and Hicks triggered multiple alerts for “No GPS,” indicating their locations could not be tracked by satellite. In May alone, Hicks triggered 206 “No GPS” alerts.

Records show Morgan has been booked into Dane County Jail at least eight times since June 2011, serving a total of 29 days in jail, all for violations related to his GPS tracker.

In each of these cases, Morgan argues the violations occurred because of an innocent mistake, as when he went for a bike ride without bringing along a hand-held device, or despite the fact that he was complying with the rules.

For instance, on Sept. 19, Morgan was jailed for four days because “he failed to have a GPS signal” for much of a two-hour period. Morgan said he was attending an approved University of Wisconsin-Madison class. His English professor, Emily Auerbach, backs him up. “I know exactly where he was” during the time in question, she said.

Hicks, 39, served 12 years for having intercourse with an unconscious woman. Records show he has been booked into jail at least a dozen times since April 2011 for violations related to his GPS monitor, spending a total of 74 days behind bars.

Hicks admits he forgot to bring his hand-held GPS tracker with him on two occasions. He left it in his car when he entered a supermarket and left it on a bus when traveling to work. But the other violations, he says, were over lost signals and false alerts.

On June 12, 2012, according to records obtained by his attorney, Hicks was at his wife’s house, an approved location. He said he left his tracker in an adjacent room, as he had done before without triggering alerts, while he watched a basketball game on television and did not hear it beep. He served a total of 51 days in jail, until after he signed an agreement admitting he “did fail to comply with the rules and conditions of GPS monitoring.”

“It’s almost like taking on a new normal,” Hicks said in an interview from the Dane County Jail in June, while jailed on this violation. “If you’re trying to move on with your life, and you’ve got these barriers, you just want to give up.”

Hicks’ attorney, Jessa Nicholson, thinks her client has done his best to reintegrate but has been unfairly punished: “I’ve spoken with his therapist, and she assessed him as posing no threat whatsoever.”

'Unworthy of life'

Now Hicks works at Voices Beyond Bars, a Madison nonprofit that assists former inmates. He said he does well at Madison Area Technical College, where he attends classes. But last year, he missed a final essay for one class because he was back in jail on a GPS violation. His grades suffered, and he was placed on academic probation.

Morgan, when not back in jail, lives with his elderly aunt on Madison’s north side. He paints, often giving his work away to Madison charities. He still takes a one-credit class at UW-Madison and works construction jobs part time.

And while Morgan acknowledges that his past actions have caused pain and deserve punishment, he thinks being on GPS monitoring conveys that he is “unworthy of life.” He said he hopes and prays “that I’m able to continue to withstand this.”