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Friday, 7 January, 2000, 10:20 GMT
Electronic tagging: A virtual prison?

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham devised a circular prison with glass walls in which every inmate could be constantly watched from a single spot in the middle.

The prison, which Bentham called a "panopticon", never became a reality. But the virtual world seems to have found an equivalent.

Electronic tagging, almost the punishment of vogue, allows a constant watch to be kept, making sure that former inmates do not even step outside their front door during curfew hours.

Aitken walks free but tagged from Elmley Prison in Kent
Disgraced former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken has been released after serving seven months of an 18-month sentence for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

He is wearing a tag for two more months, which will ensure he stays at home from 7pm to 7am.

John Alford, the former star of TV drama London's Burning who was imprisoned in May for supplying cocaine and cannabis, was last year released from prison and fitted with a tag.

Alford arrives at court Alford arrives at court
In the first 11 months of 1999, 14,464 prisoners have been released early with tags since the start of the Home Detention Curfew scheme at the start of the year.

There had been predictions that 30,000 prisoners would be taking part, and some reports say that institutionalised prisoners prefer to stay inside than deal with the hassle of tags.

A spokeswoman for the Prison Service said the scheme had a 95% success rate.

Inmates serving sentences of between three months and four years are eligible for early release and tagging, if they are considered appropriate candidates. The tagging can last for between two weeks and two months.

Any prisoners convicted of sexual offences must have their early release approved by the director general of the Prison Service.

Prisoners must, however, have a family home to go to, and this must be the base for their curfew. When they are at home, workers for one of the three companies which won the contracts to supply the tags will fit them to the offenders' wrist or ankle.

They also plug a monitoring device into the phone line.

The Prison Service says the point of the scheme is to integrate people back into society, and research had shown this happened best with family ties and employment.

So if someone had a job which started at 6am, or was doing an evening class to help get a job, the curfew hours could be altered.

The tag sends out a constant signal to the box. If no signal is received during the curfew, it contacts the control centre, which then informs the police that the early release conditions have been broken.

The tags can also be fitted to the wrist The tags can also be fitted to the wrist
Additionally, if the tag or box is tampered with, a message is also sent to the centre.

The scheme is not without its opponents, however, and for a variety of reasons.

Some people feel that while it can prevent young offenders from going out stealing cars, it is inappropriate for cases such as Aitken's.

'Prison on the cheap'

Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said she had a number of reservations about it. While she favoured early release, tagging was not as good as close human contact with, for example, probation officers.

And she suspected that it had been introduced because it was "a cheap way of imprisoning people".

But other objections on principle to tagging have been made on the grounds that, instead of being a liberalising measure, it actually makes it more acceptable for people to be punished.

A similar argument has been made about the shift from capital or corporal punishment to imprisonment - while it was seen as an open-minded move at the time, because it was seen as less serious it made punishment more acceptable.

Ms Crook said there was a danger that tagging could set a precedent for other technologies to be used in punishment. Some American states used electronic shackles more widely, and for people who would not normally have been jailed.

In any case, she said, electronic tagging would not necessarily be effective.

"They can always commit burglaries during the day," she said.

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See also:
16 Jul 99 |  UK
London's Burning star released
11 Jul 99 |  UK
Tag for freed Alford
26 May 99 |  Entertainment
Drugs downfall of child star

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