This Surveillance System Tracks Inmates Down to Their Heart Rate

Documents WIRED obtained detail new prison-monitoring technology that keeps tabs on inmates’ location, heartbeats, and more.
Closeup of a person's hands gripping the bars inside of a jail cell
Photograph: sakhorn38/Getty Images

The conditions inside the Fulton County Jail system are dire. Inmates at one of the jails in Atlanta, Georgia, are sleeping on the floor in plastic trays. Cell doors hang off hinges, footage from one local news report shows, and leaked water pools on the floor in some areas. Last September, one person was found dead and covered in bed bugs.

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which runs multiple jails around Atlanta and has been granted more funding to fix the problems, is also in the process of rolling out a new surveillance system that can track inmates to precise levels. Across the region’s jails, hundreds of sensors are being embedded into the walls. Using radio frequencies, these communicate with wristbands issued to inmates.

The system, which was created by Georgia-based firm Talitrix, can track an inmate’s heartbeat, determine their location every 30 seconds, and create 3D images showing who comes into contact with whom. Documents WIRED obtained through a public record request, including a legal agreement, statements of work, and internal PowerPoint presentations, describe how the monitoring system operates and provide a glimpse into its inner workings.

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and Talitrix claim the system can help make understaffed jails more efficient and increase overall safety, while monitoring heart rates can alert staff to an inmate’s potential health problems or suicide attempts. Critics, meanwhile, say monitoring technologies subject inmates to more surveillance and fail to address deeper issues with the criminal justice system.

The Talitrix system is one of a number of electronic monitoring devices being deployed in the sprawling web of local jails in the United States—and it may be one of the most sophisticated. Some appear to focus on suicide risk, while others have used RFID chips that are manually scanned. As jails and prisons face staffing shortages, they’ve increasingly turned to automation to monitor and control people caught up in the system. At the same time, academic researchers have said inmates are “one of the best surveilled, data-fied and documented populations,” without a choice to opt out.

“Inside the Walls”

Talitrix’s tracking system is made up of two parts: the physical infrastructure—sensors embedded in the jail and Fitbit-like wearables—and its software that allows corrections officers to monitor data being collected and receive alerts.

Talitrix first started working with Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in September 2021, company documents show. The firm initially ran a trial of its system within one of the region’s jails while it was developing the technology, and it has been expanding its use since February of this year. In total, the documents show, 750 sensors (costing $350 each) are to be installed and 1,000 wristbands (at $130 each) provided. The sensors are being placed around the jail but not within cells, those involved say. Use of the software costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

The plan is for around 450 inmates to wear the wristbands as part of a deal at the region’s main Rice Street jail, says Justin Hawkins, CEO of Talitrix. This includes the psychiatric and acute medical wards. (Lt Col Jarrett Gorlin, from the Sheriff’s Office, confirms that the department has been trialing the wristbands and is planning to further roll out the technology, although a “timeline for the full deployment is yet to be determined.”)

The biometric wristbands are not unlike sports watches, but they have been developed specifically for use in jails and prisons. Hawkins says the wristbands, which don’t have screens or GPS, can track people’s heart rate—oxygen tracking is coming to a future version—and communicate with the sensors in the walls. Hawkins says “several different radio frequencies” have been combined with the company’s algorithm to create the system.

Each band has a battery life of 30 days and a locking mechanism that inmates cannot undo, the CEO says. If a band is cut, it will alert prison staff within 15 seconds, he says. The documents say the system can track where inmates are, recording how long they spend in cells or in specific areas of the jail, such as visitation rooms. A statement of work between the company and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office from January 2023 says the software should include the ability to “maintain spacing between designated inmates” and “create and archive inmate movement.” It also says the devices are not certified as medical products.

Screenshots of a dashboard of Talitrix’s software, which is called Inside the Walls, show correction officers can see how many inmates are within each area of the jail at any time, names of inmates, their jail-cell numbers, and heart rate details—including the last recorded rate and a graph over time. It shows the number of hours an inmate has been in their cell, compared to outside of it. A tab within the software lists alerts that have issued for inmates when their heart rate has dropped or spiked.

One option within the system is a 3D reconstruction of the jail facility, dubbed a “facility replay.” This shows where inmates, represented by generic human characters, are standing at a given time. Screenshots in a Powerpoint slide show inmates standing near each other.

“I think it’s a terrifying leap forward in terms of using technology to manage the jail population,” says James Kilgore, a media fellow at nonprofit MediaJustice, who has written about electronic monitoring and spent six years incarcerated. “It’s just legitimizing gathering all kinds of biometric data on people that really had nothing to do with people being in jail,” says Kilgore, who reviewed the documents at WIRED’s request. “I just fear what can happen if all of a sudden, the Talitrix says that your heartbeat is going 140 beats per minute, when it isn’t,” Kilgore adds. “And what they’re going to do to you, in response to all that data that they used.”

“The heart rate data is used as a predictor of a potential serious health issue,” says Gorlin from Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. “If the individual falls outside of the prescribed levels, then the facility personnel are alerted. Further, the heart rate is not used in any algorithm that would impact personal privacy.” Gorlin says the location and movement of inmates can help “ensure proper count” and could eventually be used for “alerting jail personnel of two individuals coming into proximity with each other where a violent act could be perpetuated.”

Hawkins says the company’s software takes an average heart rate over an entire minute and uses “predictive analytics” to take into account what a person’s heart rate usually looks like. Both the CEO and Sheriff’s Office official say biometric and location data is “view-only” and that correctional officers are not allowed to edit or export information. “Data is not used or released beyond the application in any fashion, and the application does not integrate with any other state, local, federal, or private application for the purpose of data transmission,” a statement says.

Nicol Turner Lee, director at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, says the system suggests an “additional layer of surveillance” for those who are incarcerated and that it is crucial this comes with “appropriate privacy protections,” including rules around how collected information can be used. “It’s very important for law enforcement and correctional institutions to ensure the protection of the data being collected so that it’s not straying from its intended purposes,” says Turner Lee, who also reviewed the documents.

“Smart Prisons”

Surveillance and monitoring are intrinsic to prisons and jails around the world. Anne Kaun, a media and communication studies professor at Södertörn University, Sweden, has written a book on technology and prisons and says institutions have been used as testing grounds for surveillance technologies before they are further rolled out. In Sweden during the 1950s, prisons were one of the first places CCTV was used, Kaun says. “There was no discussion about privacy issues at all,” Kaun says. This is being replicated, at least to some extent, Kaun says, with new technological developments.

Recent years have seen an uptick in the use of monitoring technologies within criminal justice systems and immigration enforcement. Hong Kong officials have suggested using facial recognition and robot wardens within prisons to help deal with staff shortages, while GPS ankle monitors and tracking apps are increasingly being used to monitor those who are released. Face recognition smartwatches have been proposed for use in the UK, and Chinese prisons are using “emotion-tracking” technology. Many of the systems have been error-prone, are unproven, or produce inaccurate results for individuals with darker skin tones.

“There’s been this constant iteration of these different monitoring systems,” says Pilar Weiss, the director of the Community Justice Exchange, an NGO that works to end criminalization and incarceration. Weiss says that across the sprawling, largely privatized US prison system, which involves more than 4,000 suppliers providing services, there is little standardization of the systems that are used within jails.

There is likely to be an expansion of monitoring systems across the United States, Turner Less says, because technology can be seen as a quick fix. With the patchwork of state-level privacy laws in place, there is not likely to be the “guidance and guardrails” in place to protect people’s data, Turner Lee adds. “When it comes to those impacted by the criminal justice system and those who are sitting within prisons, there is an implicit assumption that their rights do not matter.”

Hawkins, the Talitrix CEO, says his company is on the verge of signing up more facilities to use its tool and is talking with other state-level correction facilities. He says the ways inmates are treated across the country is not acceptable because there is an over-incarceration rate within the United States, failing infrastructure within prisons, corruption among some officials, and staffing shortages that impact how inmates are treated. “Getting folks out of jail faster, who are not a threat to society, is the best thing that I think the United States could do,” he says.

Ultimately, Kilgore says, putting technology into a system isn’t likely to improve the quality of life within a prison. “We need human solutions,” he says, such as policy changes and programs that address issues with the justice system. “You can’t put this technology into a punitive system and have it be anything but punitive.”