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It happens very quickly. I raise my foot on the chair, roll up my trousers and a prison official fixes black plastic-rubber band around my ankle. It looks like a large wristwatch. 30 seconds and done. I am now one of the 100 people who at this very moment are electronically tagged in Estonia.

For tag to work I would also need monitoring unit which resembles an old-fashioned fax-machine. Besides that and a tag the third part of system is Control Center where the signal arrives via radio frequency technology. In case of any breach, tampering or broking the ankle-tag, the signal would travel to Control Center in Tartu.

100 with tags

„Thats not real,“ smiles Toomas (53) when I am talking to him about my experience with ankle-tag. Of course, he is right. To wear it for a hour is very different from wearing it weeks after weeks, months after months. Toomas did.

There are more than 1000 men and about 50 women in Estonia who have lived with ankle-tag during last seven years. Approximately 80-100 persons are wearing it in any given moment.

Toomas does not want to talk about his crime. „It is in past. It is new life now,“ he tells quietly. Lets just say that he was in the possession of things which should not have been there. Toomas was sentenced for three years in prison. After two years in Tallinn prison he asked for probation and got it (against prosecution’s wishes even if Toomas had no previous criminal record or risk of the reoffending).

Graphics by Raivis Vilūns

Toomas specifically requested for ankle-tag and it was granted for first months of probation (it can be worn from a month to up to a year). He is not bragging about ankle device, but not hiding it either. His family and co-workers know about it. Toomas admits that once he thought about going swimming, but then changed his mind. „I do not know, it´s just…well, I do not feel comfortable in public, it feels weird,“ he says.

Toomas is calm and polite. Only light reddening on his face and occassional bead of sweat on his forehead is bertraying his discomfort. When we talk, he does not make a big deal of his own case, but worries more about „stupid young guys from Lasnamäe“ whom he met in prison. Lasnamäe is a district in Tallinn, which is often described (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) as a breeding grounds for young drug addicts. „Good lads, simple lads, but ruining their lives with drugs. Stupid and sad,“ he shakes his head. „Of course there are many men in prison who should never be released, but there are even more of them who have their all life ahead. With little help, with little support, they can be „cured“,“ he says.

Closing “universities of crime”

After a few years of preparations Estonia adopted an electronic tracking system in 2007 as a part of a larger reform.Minister of Justice Rein Lang articulated the problem very clearly in 2005: ” There are too many prisoners in Estonia“ (4500 at a time). In 2010, Lang stated again: ” There are too many prisoners “. By then the number had decreased to 3400 (Latvia and Lithuania has significantly higher figures). The reform is still ongoing.

In 2006, the Ministry of Justice set the strategic goal of reducing the number of prisoners. Important part of this was reviewing wide range of laws. The second part was the construction of new prisons (the two largest investments were new prisons in Tartu and in Virumaa). The new Tallin prison shall be completed in 2017-2018. Along with the new modern cell- type prisons where people spend their time alone or by maximum two in room, older camp-type prisons where dozens of people lived in the same room were closed.

The oldest and most notorious camp-type prison in Rummu was closed in December 2012. It was hotbed of crime and the real criminal university for the thousands of thugs during the last decades. Numerous scandals and murders in Rummu lead to public’s complaints that Rummu prison is not run by state officials but criminal authorities.

Until today there have been more than a thousand people (including 50 women) with electronic ankle-tags. Last year, for example, 439 prisoners were released on parole of whom 165 were electronically tagged. So, ankle-tag is still available only to the minority.

Graphics by Raivis Vilūns

One of the most famous persons in Estonia with electronic tag is Tauno Laasme, exfootballer and drug dealer. Has has been spotted wearing ankle-tag during football matches.

Incidentally, footballers have been spotted with electronic tags in other countries, too. In Britain, perhaps the most famous is former Arsenal and Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant, who got the penalty for the drink driving. The tag was not a barrier to play even Premier League matches.

Another famous person in Estonia with an ankle-tag is Vadim Polištšuk, former owner and director of Tallinn Central Market. He ordered an assasination and spent 7 years in prison before being realeased to probation (and with ankle-tag).

Ministry of Justice advertises electronic monitoring as a great success story. Last year, Justice Minister Hanno Pevkur stated that, given the success of electronic surveillance, Estonia should increase it’s use.

Everyone seems to agree with the system: politicians boast about it’s success, officials do not hold the praise back and even users are agreeing. “Electronic-tagging is great device, but we are not using it enough,“ says ex-convict Toomas.

But how effective the system is and is it really cheaper than keeping people in the prisons?

Some inconvenient truth

Estonia’s Prison Service is located in Jõhvi, a town closer to the border with Russia than to the capital of Estonia. When Prison Service was moved from Tallinn to Jõhvi, it caused a lot of scandals as the staff did not want to leave the capital. But it was also part of a wider reform of the prison system.

For Maret Miljan, Director of the Rehabilitation Division, the main indicator of the success of electronic tagging is the smaller rate of re-offending „Recidivity [reoffending within a year] of electronically-tagged persons is 25%. Otherwise recidivity is 50%.“

Miljan is actually a bit wrong. Statistics are even better. “Normal“ recidivism is indeed 50%. For those wearing electronic tags recidivism is 15-20% (it fluctuates from year to year). For people on probation (but not wearing tags) recidivism is about 25%.

In any case, the results appear to be super.

But here is a catch.

Miljan explains that ankle-tag is is not granted for everyone, but only to convicts in the “lower-risk group”.

Toomas is the perfect example. In a free world he would be called an ideal customer. Toomas does not have previous criminal record (it was his first crime), he has a family, home, new job, he does not have drink or drugs addictions. He is „low-risk“.

But now we get into the heart of the problem. The deciders, politicians and officials, are praising the system and quoting it’s efectiveness (think of reduced recidivity). Media and the public are silently accepting this as a truth. In reality, when you apply electronic-tagging to only low-risk groups (think of our Toomas), obviously you get lower recidivity.

Here are few inconvient truths

Between 2007 and 2012 (for 2013 data is not available yet) electronic tags were cut off or vandalized 27 times. On average almost 3% of cases. A punishment for cutting or vandalizing your ankle-tag is clear: back to prison.

Minor violations end with a warning. People who are electronically tagged are allowed some time away from being constantly monitored. They can go to work, go shopping, take a walk, but they have to be back at certain time. If you come 10 minutes earlier or later that is fine. But 11 minutes later alarm goes off. The person have to inform the Control Center, write an explanation and he will be given warning.

The worst cases are when people cut-off their ankle tags and run away. During the seven years of the functioning of the system Estonia has got 14 fugitives.

Graphics by Raivis Vilūns

For example, in 2012, former horse-riding coach and convicted pedophile Vello Kudrjatsev cut off his ankle-tag and run away. Two years later and Kudrjatsev is still at large. The media has been silent about these cases, but you do not have to be Nostradamus to predict that if public knew, silent agreement with a tags could very quickly turn into vocal anger. The police and ambulances have found several people who have overdosed, with electronic tag hanging around their ankles.

It turns out that there are many technical problems too. Anonymous interviews with probation officers (they are monitoring people with ankle-tags) for the academic research paper (link) reveal many complaints: batteries of ankle-tags can discharge unexpectedly, home monitoring devices are malfunctioning, power failures, communication failures. The quality of the equipment “vary or is downright poor”.

These problems are not alien to Toomas either. Every week he had to met with his probation officer to make a schedule for the next week – when Toomas can leave his home, go to work, take a walk. The monitoring device and ankle-tag are pre-programmed for every individual.

In case of Toomas the radius of the radio signal had to cover his apartment. If he stepped out of the it into the hallway, signal would go off. He could not not leave the home earlier than the device’s programming allowed (again, signal would go off), but he also could not return earlier. So, if Toomas had a four hour leave for work, but finished it within three ours, he could not return home, because home monitoring device would detect it and signal would go off again.

„I was killing my time in front of the building, but monitoring device still detected the presence of my ankle tag and gave a signal,“ says Toomas „I do not know was it the fault of the program or the fault of the device.“

Another case when monitoring device rang the emergency happened when Toomas´s wife was cleaning their apartament. She swept the dust from the shelf and moved a monitoring unit a bit, but that is forbidden and alarm went off.

Then there are other problems. „I have a phone number of Control Center in Tartu. If something unexpected happens, I have to call,” Toomas explains. He recalls a case when he was sitting in a traffic jam and saw that he will be late. „I called, but officer from other side just reviled me. Basically [he implied] what a piece of junk, worthless garbage I am,” he bitterly says.

Impossible calculation of benefits

The cost of electronian surveillance system for Estonia is about € 150 000 a year which would mean roughly between 4.7 and 7.8 euros per day (author ́s own calculation) per user. The costs can be tricky business. Many critical articles were published in UK last year when Brits discovered that their electronic tagging system costs 16.7 euros per day, compared to 1.5 euros per day in the United States.

In Estonia’s case 150 000 EUR a year are not total costs. It covers only the lease of the system from the Israeli company which provides the service to Estonia’s government.

Total costs should also include all other expenses (salaries of the probation officers and other civil servants, installation costs, costs of Control center etc), but it has turned out impossible to get exact number for total costs. Probation officers are dealing with many „clients“, not just with persons with ankle-tags. Same logic expands to the other officials and activities.

Image: Estonian probation service

Ministry of Justice claims that keeping one person in prison costs 1197 euros in month or 39.9 euros per day and one person on probation costs 51 euros in month or about 1.7 euros per day. As a rule of thumb the cheapest option is person on probation (but without ankle tag), the most expensive is keeping a person in prison. Electronic-tagging is somewhere in between.

Another fault in simple economic logic comes from the fact that the costs cannot measure indirect benefits. „I am working, I am creating value, I am paying taxes,“ Toomas lists an obvious reasons why it is more useful to keep people out of prison (even with ankle-tags).

And there can be additional reasons. For example, better treatment of prisoners. Estonia has lost the cases in the European Court of Human Rights because prisoners have complained that they have too little space. Toomas saw it in Tallinn Prison. When he started his sentence, there were many chambers with six inmates in each, but the court demanded the reduction. It meant more convicts to probation, more prisoners with ankle tags. It means investment in the prison system and in electronic surveillance, but also a change in Estonia’s understanding of human rights of the prisoners.

Beautiful numbers

Statistical picture from Estonia is wonderful: annual reduction in the number of the crimes, very rapid decline of the serios offences like murders or robberies. At the same time there has been a reduction in the number of prisoners, shorter sentences, increased electronic surveillance. Officials and politicians can say: see, we are reforming penal and prison systems and the crime rates are falling. Electronic tagging is working, lower recidivism and less crime.

But that kind of logic is too simple. Sociologists and economists who deal with the topic on daily basis would argue that the Estonian society has evolved, socio-economic situation has improved, the quality of education has increased, welfare is rising, the police is doing better job and all of this has lead to reduction in crime. The prison system is a last part of the link and inevitably some effects can be seen there too, but one cannot say that electronic-tagging alone reduces the crime and recidivity.

Last year two scientists, Andri Ahven and Anne Kruusement, evaluated Estonia´s experience with electronic surveillance. Among other things, they looked at the files of more than one hundred people who were released to probation with ankle-tags. Typically person who is realeased on probation has to carry ankle-tag for few months and then he can continue his probation without a tag. Is there diffrence in recidivity during these two periods? Ahven and Kruusement found out that answer is: no. Numbers of violations during time when wearing ankle-tags and number of violations during time when tag was removed, were the same. No difference.

Similar skepticism is voiced by Jako Salla. Salla works as criminal policy advisor at the Ministry of Justice. Unlike his fellow officers, he is much more cautious. “Broadly speaking, better storage does not add value, but may delay deterioration,” says Salla. “It seems to me that, just as we do, Latvians are putting too much hope on the buildings and gadgets.” It means that it is not just the question of buildings (new prisons) and gadgets (electronic surveilannce tags), but on the meaningful work to reduce crime. It means enough tutors, psychologists, people who can help, counsel and advise ex-convicts.

Last time I met Toomas was in a cafe in the Old Town of Tallinn. He was drinking red wine. „Now I am allowed,“ he pointed to the glass.

He is now free man. His probation has ended, he does not have to wear ankle-tag anymore. Did you celebrate, I ask. Not much, he says. „Important date is not when your ankle tag is removed or when you probation ends,“ he explains „Important date is when you get out of prison. When you can see your family, hug your wife, see your kids. We can talk about technical problems with the device, we can talk about inconveniences, but it is all piece of cake. I agreed with ankle-tag and I was able to meet my family before my release date. Of course, it is a great device.“

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