Invisible Chains

By Johansson, Linda | UNESCO Courier, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Invisible Chains


Johansson, Linda, UNESCO Courier


Sweden's electronic tagging project

Imprisonment is the most expensive form of punishment in modern society. In Sweden, the upkeep of an inmate in an open prison costs approximately 1,500 kroner ($200 or [pounds]120) a day, and around 2,000 kroner ($250 or [pounds]160) in a closed prison. Studies have shown that incarceration has a negative impact on detainees, who are forced to leave their families, jobs and social life, and that prisons are breeding grounds for criminality where young inmates learn about crime from more experienced lawbreakers.

To address these issues, Sweden launched a pilot project in 1994 in which minor offenders can choose to be put under electronic surveillance instead of going to prison. In six probation districts, lawbreakers sentenced to prison terms of two months or less were given the option of living at home and wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. Results surpassed expectations and three years later the programme was expanded to include all offenders nationwide sentenced to terms of three months or less. Nearly half the 4,000 people eligible for electronic tagging in the first six months of 1997 had been convicted of drunken driving.

Offenders must meet several requirements to be eligible for the programme. They must have a recognized home, a phone and a job. In addition, they must pay 50 kroner ($6 or [pounds]4) a day for the duration of their sentence to Victim Support, a charitable organization. A 1997 study showed that several offenders who did not request the bracelet said the reason was they could not afford the 50 kroner a day or had neither a job nor a home.

Probation officers do all they can to assist applicants, including trying to find them jobs and slots in training programmes. A temporary phone line paid for by the national prisons and probation administration can be installed and offenders are encouraged to ask relatives or friends to help them find housing. Those who cannot afford the 50 kroner a day are exempted from payment.

The tag is fastened around the offender's ankle. A 50-centimetre high electronic transmitter installed at his or her home beams signals to a surveillance centre. If the tag is removed or the offender leaves home, the transmitter immediately triggers an alarm and the centre rings up the offender's home to check for a possible malfunction. If the offender is found to have broken the rules, the tag is withdrawn and the rest of the sentence must be served in prison. But that seldom happens. The study showed that permission to work was suspended for misconduct in only 5 per cent of cases, usually because the offender had been drinking alcohol. …

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