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Beyond the bars: Envisioning a new ecosystem of virtual incarceration

Michael Gelles (left) Alan
Holder and Kara Shuler

By Michael Gelles , Alan Holden and Kara Shuler

At this moment, 1 out of every 100 adult Americans is behind bars. That’s 2.3 million convicted offenders, more than 60 percent of whom were sentenced for non-violent offenses.

In a time when budgets are shrinking and resources to manage prisons are being reduced, the costs of all of these inmates are adding up. The average federal prison operates at 137% of capacity, and state facilities are similarly overcrowded. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that overcrowding in California's prisons amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and ordered the state to outsource or release more than 30,000 prisoners by 2012. If sentences are reduced due to overcrowding and inadequate resources, how are communities supposed to protect themselves and manage risk?

One solution might be to build more prisons, but budgets are already over-stretched. States spend $51 billion annually on incarceration, a figure that represents 1 out of every 14 discretionary dollars in state budgets. It actually costs more for some states to incarcerate an inmate for a year than it does for a student to attend and Ivy League University. But, despite all of the money spent on imprisoning offenders, states are seeing poor returns on their investment. The odds are about 50/50 that a former inmate will re-offend within three years of release, threatening the safety of the communities into which they are released.

What if an alternative were possible? What if states broke out of the old model of brick-and-mortar incarceration and adopted a more innovative risk-management system for low-level offenders? And what if that model could also provide a more effective approach to mitigating the risk of recidivism and enhancing community safety?

Such a system is possible. Emerging approaches and technologies are already showing their potential benefits. For example, new forms of predictive and geospatial analytics are demonstrating their effectiveness in anticipating and visualizing where and when crime occurs, while new insights into human behavior allow for the design of more tailored and effective interventions. Meanwhile, new mobile devices allow these interventions to be scaled across wider geographic areas and at lower costs.

These approaches exist, but are often used in isolation. However, by combining these cutting-edge approaches and technologies, it is possible to envision a new ecosystem of incarceration that can achieve improved outcomes for lower costs, and can enhance community policing and safety

A new system imagined

Selecting participants through advanced risk modeling -- In such a system, advanced data analytics could help determine the lowest-risk candidates for a virtual incarceration program and provide recommendations about effective interventions for a particular offender. Going beyond the traditional ankle monitor, key predictors, such as past offense history, home environment, gang affiliation, peer associations and drug addiction, could be used to assess an offender’s likelihood to re-offend. This information could also help determine the types of restrictions and support services needed to mitigate risk, as well as the conditions a subject must adhere to in order to remain out of prison.

Offender monitoring via smartphone technology -- Upon entering a virtual incarceration system, offenders would be provided with a smartphone to augment existing electronic monitoring solutions. These devices could provide one-touch access to a series of customized applications aligned to the specific monitoring and behavioral modification needs identified through the risk modeling process. Smart mobile technology already supports activities ranging from training and education, to mental health and drug relapse programs, to contact with peer groups and employers. This can be provided at a cost far less than that associated with housing, feeding and monitoring inmates within prison walls.

Modifying behavior through game mechanics -- Even if an offender has easy access to a wide variety of services, what motivations are in place for them to engage in pro-social behavior in the community? One solution could be to integrate the required interventions through game mechanics. Imagine a system in which the actions taken by a virtually incarcerated offender were linked through a system designed to incentivize positive behaviors, while allowing offenders to easily see their progression through the program via badges or points on their smartphone. This process of applying game mechanics to improve outcomes is referred to as “gamification.”

Making smarter decisions with geospatial analytics -- Finally, in a new system of virtual incarceration, location-based data would play a vital role in monitoring offenders and improving resource allocation. For example, an automated system capable of tracking offenders’ movement patterns could push notifications to them if they entered restricted zones and inform the police when offenders are engaging in behaviors that violate their parole and program participation conditions. It could also notify case managers when offenders engage in behaviors that suggest they may be in the process of potentially re-offending, such as a drug dealer entering the location of a prior offense, or a domestic partner entering an area prohibited by a restraining order. Case managers or parole officers could access a dashboard tracking the movements and activities of the offenders under their supervision, seeing their location on a map and viewing their activities via the aforementioned “gamified” system of interventions. This data could also play a valuable role in supporting policy-makers in determining where resources and services should be allocated.  

Breaking out of prison

This re-imagined vision for the U.S. prison system is not science fiction. Its components are grounded in the criminal justice research about what works, brought to life by new technologies and successful approaches that have shown promise in other sectors.

Taking a longer term view, the ecosystem has implications beyond the prison system. Extrapolating to similar governmental functions, such as detaining illegal immigrants or providing protection to domestic violence victims, imagine the benefits of a similarly integrated ecosystem. The possibilities and applications can be limited by how able and willing government officials will be to embrace a bold new approach. 

Mike Gelles is a director with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s federal practice in Washington, DC. He can be reached at:

[email protected] 

Alan Holden is a GovLab fellow and senior consultant in Deloitte’s federal practice. He can be reached at:

[email protected] 

Kara Shuler is a senior consultant in Deloitte’s federal practice. She can be reached at:




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