Have you ever ignored a red light when nobody was around? Ever skipped washing your hands after returning from your lunch break? Don’t worry your secret is safe with me. But consider this: Would you have done the same if you knew someone was watching you? It seems like a no-brainer, but being observed changes human behavior—and it’s about time jails took advantage of that. If jails and prisons are genuinely meant to function as both rehabilitation and penal facilities, they need to meaningfully alter the antisocial behaviors of their inmates. And judging by current U.S. recidivism rates, significant behavioral alterations are not happening. The question is, how do we change that? It’s time for jails and prisons to consider new behavioral modification options, options that can educate inmates rather than offer them a carrot-stick dichotomy. It’s time to implement jail sensors directly into correctional security architecture.
Noise, air quality, atmospheric pressure, temperature, and humidity are all environmental factors that directly affect human behavior. By keeping track of these variables, facilities can modify their environments to reduce prisoner volatility. In fact, one additional benefit of jail sensors is that they alter human behavior even without being active. This is because the mere presence of monitoring devices in social spaces has an effect on human behavior. Examples of sensors influencing internet usage, stadium behavior, and work ethic/productivity are detailed below, to support this fact.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslim Americans grew increasingly concerned that their law-abiding internet activities were being monitored by the U.S. government. According to work done by Professor Dawinder S. Sidhu: “Muslim-Americans not only believe the government monitors their routine activities, but that such concerns have translated into actual changes in daily behavior.” This article proves that merely the perception of being monitored is enough to elicit a behavioral response in a population. For jail administrators, that feeling of being watched would accompany the installation of new monitoring devices. So even if these jail sensors were (wastefully) never switched on, the inmates within a monitored facility would still be conscious of their presence, and that, as Sidhu proved, would be enough to alter behavior.
The grandstands in Swedish football arenas are notoriously rife with rowdy fans, not unlike football stadiums everywhere. However, the results of research conducted by Mikael Priks of Stockholm University shows “that there was much less unruly behavior inside stadiums when surveillance cameras were used compared to the games when they were not used. The various specifications reveal that the reduction was at least 65 percent.” According to Priks, prominent monitoring devices in stadiums reduced negative attendee conduct. If jail administrators used similar device setups, it’s possible that they could also see net decreases in negative inmate conduct.
In an attempt to increase performance, decrease abuses and waste, and control undesirable employee behaviors, businesses have implemented a variety of electronic monitoring devices, according to researchers Sherri Coultrup and Patrick Fountain. These devices capture computer keystrokes, listen in on phone calls, and record video surveillance; all in an attempt to minimize costs associated with employee misconduct. In all honesty, there’s no reason for jail administrators to implement keystroke monitoring. But it would be in their best interests to cultivate an environment of surveillance that actively de-incentivizes negative behavior. And for that, jail sensors are a perfect tool.
Final Thoughts on Jail Sensors
This strategy of using monitoring devices to influence human decision-making is nothing new. In fact, there’s even a name for the concept behind it: reactivity. In the wrong context, responsiveness can be destructive. Psychological research studies often try to cut this variable out of their findings, and big-brother-esque social control theories are based on this concept is a given. The Muslim-American Internet study above is proof enough of that.
However, just because there is an excellent potential for abuse doesn’t eliminate the good this strategy can do in the right situation. Reactivity, sensors, jails—whether they harm or help society depends entirely upon how they are used. For evidence of that, just look to the above examples of stadiums and businesses. In the correct setting, smart, environmental sensors can do amazing things, and jails and prisons are the correct settings.