Lost signals, disconnected lives

Concerns raised over reliability of state’s GPS monitoring of offenders

About this project

Thirteen offenders told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that Wisconsin’s GPS tracking system repeatedly fails, registering false alerts and landing the offenders in jail although they had done nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker is proposing an expansion of nearly 50 percent in the number of offenders monitored by GPS devices.

Offenders and their advocates say that GPS breakdowns waste taxpayers’ money with unnecessary police work and lockups, and hamper offenders’ efforts to restore relationships with their families and retain jobs. The DOC says the system is reliable, but releases few details and acknowledges its performance hasn’t been audited. A key GOP legislator says an audit may be in order.


Case study: Offender racks up GPS violations
Aaron Hicks spent 51 days in jail after, he says, he left his monitoring unit in the kitchen while he watched a basketball game on TV. Hicks was arrested at least 11 times over nearly two years for GPS violations.

GPS problems and solutions
Auditing the state’s GPS monitoring system, and other suggestions from experts interviewed by the Center.

This story on the radio

The Center’s Tegan Wendland produced this March 25 report on GPS monitoring for Morning Edition on Wisconsin Public Radio.


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 story 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.

Advocates for released prisoners say that GPS breakdowns waste taxpayers’ money with unnecessary police work and lockups, and they 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.

Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

State Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, says he doesn’t have much sympathy for whatever “inconvenience” sex offenders endure. But he was concerned by the Center’s findings and said they may warrant an audit of the GPS monitoring system. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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 Department of Corrections 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,” DOC spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie wrote in an email.

In an interview, 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 man-made 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.

“There are times when I’€™m afraid to leave whatever room I’€™m in, even to go to the bathroom,” says James Morgan, 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.”€ Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

‘You just want to give up’

In all, the Center interviewed a dozen sex offenders, plus one person convicted of stalking, who complained of problems with their GPS 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.”

Bratsven’s 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 has lost “thousands of dollars” in missed work.

Wayne Murphy, convicted of sexual assault in Dane County in 1992, said the GPS tracking device he wore for roughly nine months routinely malfunctioned. “I never knew when I was going to go back to jail,” Murphy said. “It was psychological torture.”

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 2012 alone, Hicks triggered 206 “No GPS” alerts.

Records show Morgan has been booked into the 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 that the violations occurred because of an innocent mistake, as when he went for a bike ride without bringing along a handheld device, or despite the fact that he was complying with the rules.

For instance, on Sept. 19, 2012, 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 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, after he was jailed for this GPS violation. “If you’re trying to move on with your life, and you’ve got these barriers, you just want to give up.”

The records show that Hicks, 39, who served 12 years for having intercourse with an unconscious woman, has asked on multiple occasions to have his parole revoked and be sent back to prison. He told the Center he did so because, in prison, he knew what was expected of him.

Jessa Nicholson, Hicks’ attorney, 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.”

On eight occasions, Nicholson said, she has defended people accused of GPS violations. Most of the time, there is not much she can do.

At the hearing to determine whether an offender will be sent back to prison or face other sanctions, the state must only show that a “preponderance of evidence” exists, not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as with criminal convictions.

Offenders and legal advocates have challenged the constitutionality of GPS monitoring. In Griffin v. Wisconsin, a state case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, it was decided that civil liberty restrictions are justified if they serve a rehabilitative purpose and protect public safety.

James Morgan’s GPS tracker. Under state law, certain offenders convicted of violent sex crimes will be tracked with GPS technology for the rest of their lives. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

A misused tool?

In the 1960s, while studying under the famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner at Harvard University, Robert Gable and his brother designed the first electronic monitoring system. They hoped it would be used as a support system.

“It was supposed to be a pro-social tool,” Gable said in an interview, “a way for offenders and agencies to remain in contact and offer positive support.”

But with the development of newer forms of the technology, particularly GPS tracking, Gable has become uneasy. Tracking technology, he wrote in a 2009 report, has instead been used “almost exclusively as an information system to document rule violations.”

By 2008, at least 39 states required or authorized the use of electronic monitoring to track sex offenders, according to the nonprofit National Conference of State Legislatures. The group’s report said at least 11 states, including Wisconsin, require lifetime monitoring of some offenders.

Gable estimates that 250,000 individuals are being electronically monitored in the United States today, about one in 10 by GPS technology. More widely used is radio frequency monitoring, which tethers individuals to a base station inside their homes, effectively a form of house arrest. If they travel outside the perimeter without approval, authorities are notified.

And GPS vendors are seeking to significantly expand the use of GPS technology, by pitching their wares to authorities to monitor illegal immigrants, suspected gang members and even truant students.

How effective is GPS tracking? That is open to debate.

Bill Bales, principal investigator on a 2010 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, found that electronic monitoring — both radio frequency and GPS units were examined — could decrease recidivism by 31 percent.

“GPS can be a very effective tool,” he said in an interview.

But Gable thinks many agencies are using GPS devices as a means of “control and punishment,” rather than as a tool to help keep offenders on track.

“GPS tracking is an example of public fear that has been augmented by politicians who want to be tough on crime,” Gable said. “It’s a wayward technology that has become warped into a punishment routine.”

Understanding the limitations

Tracked offenders wear anklets at all times. Those with older, two-piece models must carry a portable GPS device which 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.

Offenders interviewed for this report said that call center personnel have contacted them on occasion, advising them to charge a low battery, or to change locations for a stronger GPS signal. Other times, they said, the DOC gave no warning before sending police to their homes.
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.”

Individuals experiencing problems with their GPS devices are advised to contact the monitoring center, which according to the DOC is staffed at all times. But a Center reporter was present one Sunday morning in late October when Hicks called to report an issue. His call was forwarded to voicemail and hours later, Hicks was taken into custody.

He was released two days later, after his parole agent reviewed the situation.

George Drake, president of Correct Tech LLC, an Albuquerque-based corrections technology consulting company, said agencies need to be mindful of the technology’s limitations.

In particular, he argues that correctional officers should exercise careful discretion regarding whether and when GPS violations lead to re-incarceration.

“It should not be a blanket policy,” Drake said. “A one-time ‘no-GPS’ event would be an inappropriate reason to send someone to jail. If it happens again and again, that might be something to look into.”

Though a proponent of GPS tracking, Drake said agencies should be aware of its limitations and set clear objectives. “I think a review on at least a yearly basis would be appropriate to make sure an agency is making progress toward those objectives,” he said.

Peggy Conway, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, said that, in general, GPS devices do what they’re designed to do. But correctional officers need to know “how the devices work and where they don’t work. They are the ones who need to distinguish between nuisance alerts — which waste police officers’ time and resources — and the alerts that need to be investigated.”

The DOC’s Guthrie said GPS monitoring “is just one tool and is not intended to be a stand-alone. Its intention is to work in concert with other supervisory strategies.”

The DOC says it does check to make sure GPS equipment and systems are working properly. But, according to Guthrie, the agency “has not audited the performance of the system and is unaware of any other agencies which have audited GPS monitoring in Wisconsin.”

Longstanding problems

Drake said the first thing he tells people about GPS technology is that they need to understand why it sometimes does not work, “so they don’t have unrealistic expectations.” The technology, while improved, is not good at tracking offenders in high-rise buildings, subways, basements or large commercial structures like shopping malls.

“To be used best, it needs to be used with a clear view of the sky, no clouds, wide open spaces,” Drake said. “We as people spend 90 percent of our time indoors, so there’s an immediate problem.”

Gable calls BI, which has been working with Wisconsin since 1991, “the biggest and the oldest manufacturer” of GPS tracking equipment on the market. According to its website, the company has approximately 900 contracts with federal, state and local agencies.

BI’s website warns that the GPS signals sent by the devices can be lost due to rain or fog, in deep canyons or dense vegetation, near large or tall buildings, and “when the offender is riding in a car or other enclosed means of transportation.”

Sometimes the problems run deeper than that.

In 2010, BI suffered a nationwide electronic monitoring server crash, leaving authorities in 49 states unaware of the movements of offenders who were being tracked by GPS and other technology. In Wisconsin, police and correctional officers reportedly held about 140 sex offenders in jail throughout the state until the GPS tracking system was restored.

In 2007, a legislative study committee in Arizona measured the effectiveness of using GPS technology to track offenders. It found that the 140 offenders monitored that year experienced a total of 35,601 false alerts, due to problems such as low batteries or signals lost in dead zones.

The study group found 463 confirmed violations, meaning that false alerts outnumbered proven infractions by a 77-1 margin.

In 2010, the Detroit Free Press published a story about Craig LeRoy Atkins, a 52-year-old Pontiac man who lost a high-paying job after parole officials reconsidered his case and placed Atkins on a GPS monitor. The company later terminated his employment due to the new condition.

“It’s almost like they want me to start selling drugs again,” Atkins said at the time. Less than a year later, he was found shot to death in Pontiac, Mich.

A 2011 study of GPS technology by Sam Houston State University in Texas found a significant number of false alerts, triggered by equipment failures.

“GPS technology is far more limited than anticipated and should be viewed as a tool rather than depended upon as a control mechanism,” said one of the authors, Gaylene Armstrong, in a news release.

Uncertain cost

In 2007, nine months after he signed a bill mandating lifetime GPS tracking for certain sex offenders, then-Gov. Jim Doyle proposed limiting tracking only to offenders on probation or parole, citing budgetary concerns. State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, warned that this would undercut “our ability to track these monsters.” In the end, Doyle, a Democrat, agreed to move forward with expanded tracking of these sex offenders.

In fiscal year 2011-12, the state paid BI $4.2 million for services including GPS monitoring units, home monitoring units, and electronic alcohol-detection units, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The DOC was unable to say how much was specifically spent on GPS.

A provision in state law requires that offenders on GPS monitoring pay a fee for the devices. But the amount is based on the offender’s ability to pay, and even offenders who are not absolved of this responsibility are often delinquent. According to the Fiscal Bureau, less than $100,000 was collected during the fiscal year that ended in June.

More reading: Sidebars

Case study: Offender racks up GPS violations
Aaron Hicks spent 51 days in jail after, he says, he left his monitoring unit in the kitchen while he watched a basketball game on TV. Hicks was arrested at least 11 times over nearly two years for GPS violations.

GPS problems and solutions
Auditing the state’s GPS monitoring system, and other suggestions from experts interviewed by the Center.

“I could have predicted that from the get-go,” said Bies, the corrections committee chairman. “Most of the people that you are involving (with GPS) are barely self-sufficient as it is.”

Wisconsin offenders are tracked in near real-time using “active” technology, or are monitored through “passive tracking,” where they dock into a home base-station to send their day’s locations to the monitoring center.

According to the DOC, the state currently pays $6.15 per day for active monitoring and $4.49 a day for passive. That comes to about $2,250 a year for active and $1,600 for passive. That does not include staff time and ancillary costs, which the DOC was unable to calculate.

“It is very difficult to approximate a true cost for GPS monitoring,” Guthrie said.

‘Unworthy of life’

In August, Aaron Hicks was released from jail after serving 51 days. A Center photographer went to his apartment to record his return. Hicks’ parole agent was present, as well as a BI technician who needed to hook Hicks up to his home GPS unit.

The agent, Amy Bell, prohibited photographs of the hook-up process, which took place on public property. Days later, Bell told Hicks he was no longer permitted to speak with the media.

But after being contacted by Christa Westerberg, the Center’s attorney, the DOC backed down.

James 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. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

“While Ms. Bell made a comment to that effect, this condition was never imposed,” wrote the DOC’s chief legal counsel, Kathryn Anderson. “There was no change to the written conditions of his supervision.”

Hicks was subsequently assigned another agent.

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 feels that 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.”

3 thoughts on “Lost signals, disconnected lives

  1. I have to side with Bies. If they expressed any remorse, if any of them said, “ Maybe I deserve this inconvenience since my victim[s] are annoyed and worse by memories of what I did to them, even without technological reminders attached to their bodies.” If any of them showed an ounce of humility. Maybe I’d spare some sympathy for them. I’m more concerned that we paid for expensive equipment that does not work properly — again.

    • How do you know offenders do not express remorse or humility? Are you there for their sentencing? Are you there in the courtroom? Or are you just relying on old, tired, myths and stereotypes? Do you know how many offenders reoffend, what the recidivism rate is? Do you know how many s3x offenses are committed by first-time offenders?

      An offender is not stuck with inconvenience. They are stuck with a stigma, and in WI’s case a gadget that identifies them as a s3x offender. That stigma does not just affect mental health, it affects housing, dating, friendships, community involvement, jobs… everything. And for what? Because a bunch of lawmakers and the supreme court fed lies to the public about how apt they are to reoffend, and how much safer registration and such makes them. It is one gigantic farce that puts children and others in worse danger by putting the focus on the wrong population.

  2. This issue will continue to be a problem as long as people believe that GPS tracking makes them and their families safe. The illusion of safety that these laws have created are more of a danger than the offenders themselves. I have worn a GPS tracking bracelet for the past four years, the last 5 months AFTER I completed my sentence here in Wisconsin. During my parole I was incarcerated 14 times for false alerts and eqipment failures.

    I have great remorse for what I have done and if it were possible I would take on the pain myself. But the reality is, I can not and I live with that reality daily.

    Are there offenders that have no remorse, that should be locked up forever? Yes, there are, but contrary to common misperception, they are the exception and not the rule.

    GPS can be a great tool WHEN used in conjuction with treatment and community accountablity, but it will not keep the community safe. And lifetime GPS so called passive monitoring is purely a punitive waste of taxpayer monies that will not stop a person from committing another offense if they so choose.

    I find it facinating that in a country that preaches the Christian ethic of forgiveness, sex offenders are the exception. Discrimination and blatant vigilantism has become the rule.

    Every time I was arrested for an equipment failure, the arresting officers were annoyed and apologetic. Annoyed because their time was being wasted, and apologetic because they could do nothing but what they are paid to do.

    Did I deserve my sentence? Yes. I committed that terrible crime and I should have been punished, but to now continue to punish me after my time is done is simply unconstitutional as well as morally reprehensible.

    “We hate most about others, what we hate most about ourselves.”