April 30, 2013 | 01:58 PMELKHORN — Inside the Walworth County jail there are rows of empty bunk beds in a room that used to be a Huber dorm.
That room housed inmates serving sentences with work-release privileges. Huber inmates leave the facility during the day to work and return at night.
Those rooms are now empty because last May, the Walworth County jail significantly expanded its electronic monitoring program, which places inmates on supervised house arrest.
Now, a year since the program was expanded, at any given time between 80 and 90 inmates are supervised by electronic monitoring.
This growth has resulted in significant savings for the jail.
Through attrition, the jail staff was reduced by eight, Undersheriff Kurt Picknell said. That results in an annual savings of nearly $800,000, he added.
Jail superintendent Steven Sax said money is also saved on utilities, food and other expenses.
"Our insurance went down because we are not housing as many inmates," Sax said.
The sheriff's department has reduced the Huber dorm to one room. The jail has increased the security in the former Huber dorms, which now can be used for overflow if the jail population grows.
The Huber dorms are for inmates who can leave the jail to work or care for children. The jail houses inmates who are incarcerated and can't leave.
Sgt. Sean Duffey said, as of last week, 57 inmates were in the Huber dorm and were not part of the electronic monitoring program. Duffey said the jail won't be able to place all Huber inmates on electronic monitoring. That's because the program is only available to inmates who live in Walworth County. Another reason inmates opt out of electronic monitoring is because land-line phones are required for alcohol testing (see side bar Monitoring for alcohol use). Inmates serving short sentences don't want to pay to have a phone installed.
"Individuals have requested not to go on electronic monitoring because they will be supervised better than if they were on Huber," Duffey said. Duffey said of the 357 people who have been on electronic monitoring in the past year, 31 have been revoked from it. Those are mostly due to drug and alcohol use. Inmates are drug screened on a regular basis.
Are we coddling criminals?
The electronic monitoring program is for inmates who have been convicted and sentenced. During the sentencing, the judge determines whether an inmate is eligible for Huber privileges.
The jail staff decides whether Huber inmates will serve their sentences in the dorm or if they are suitable for electronic monitoring. Duffey said the jail staff looks at the inmate's history and where he or she will reside before giving them electronic monitoring. If they committed crimes against children, the jail wants to make sure the inmate doesn't live with children, Picknell said. Picknell said sheriff's deputies visit the home before the inmate is allowed to live there. Picknell said they want to make sure the inmate has a chance to be successful on the program.
If the inmate is serving a sentence for drunken driving, the jail won't let them live in a home with beer cans scattered on the porch. When inmates were released out of the Huber dorm, they weren't under strict supervision, and it was difficult for the jail to know whether the inmates spent their days at work. Picknell said the sheriff's department is also hoping to change the inmates behavior.
"They are eventually going to return (home)," Picknell said. "This helps with the behavior modification in the transition period." How closely can the jail monitor inmates?
Inmates provide the jail with an itinerary weekly, and their plans are either approved or denied. In the electronic monitoring offices, the jail can track where an inmate is at any given moment. For an example, the jail pulled up an inmate who was working in construction in Milwaukee.
The computer showed where he was and time stamped when he was there. It even showed how fast he drove there.
Duffey can even track inmates at his home from his cell phone, and he gets text message alerts if there are any problems. Deputies may also stop by inmates' homes unexpectedly to check on them. If there is any suspicious activity, the deputies have the right to search the residence. The inmates agreed to these terms before being placed on electronic monitoring. Inmates pay $17 a day to rent the equipment. It costs the jail less than $9 to rent, but Duffey said they want the inmates' cost to cover all the expenses used to monitor them, which includes wages of the staff who monitors the inmates.
Sax said the jail leases the equipment, which allows for updates when better technology becomes available. The electronic monitoring equipment used by the department of corrections only allows probation agents to see if the convict is home and doesn't monitor his or her movements. Sax said the technology for electronic monitoring is advancing as fast as cell phone technology.
Monitoring for alcohol use
Tags: County Report
It wouldn't be much of a punishment if the inmates were allowed to consume alcohol while serving a sentence on the electronic monitoring bracelet.
Undersheriff Kurt Picknell said most of the inmates, even the ones who aren't serving sentences directly related to alcohol or drug offenses, have underlying drug or alcohol dependency issues.
To ensure individuals on release aren't drinking, a Breathalyzer is installed at his or her home. The machine, which is connected to voice-recognition software, is connected to a phone line at the inmate's residence and buzzes at set times each day, typically before work, after work and later in the evening.
Depending on the inmate's history, testing may occur more frequently.
At the jail, before the sentence begins, the jail staff shows the inmate how to use the Breathalyzer and records them saying three keywords, America, Canada and eagle.
These words were selected because of the distinctive speech patterns used to pronounce them, Sgt. Sean Duffey said.
At the inmates' homes, when the machine buzzes, inmates are given a few minutes to quiet the house and prepare to take the test.
During the test, the inmate holds the machine to his or her mouth. A recording of them saying one of the keywords is played back to them and they have to repeat it. After recording a few keywords the inmate takes a Breathalyzer test. They don't know the results of the test unless there's a problem.
When problems arise, such as testing positive for alcohol, deputies are sent to the inmate's home.
Duffey said inmates have tried to bypass the voice-recognition system by having similar sounding family members take the test for them.
One inmate's brother took the test for him and the machine was able to distinguish that it wasn't the inmate taking the test.
It didn't help the inmate's case when the GPS software attached to his ankle showed that he was in Lake Geneva when his brother took the test in Delavan.
The jail staff has also tried what they call "research and development." Basically, they search for ways to beat the system.
They have imitated each other using the machine and said they haven't been successful at all. In fact, the jail staff allowed a Regional News reporter to test the machine, and the reporter's voice was correctly recognized with about 90 percent certainty.
A 90 percent certainty isn't enough to send off any red flags to the jail.
A person's voice isn't always identical in pitch and tone. However, the program's sensitivity makes it difficult to mimic another person's voice.
The machine, in the reporter's experience, was also very sensitive to voice volume and timing. The machine asks the person blowing into it to lower his or her voice or raise it.
The jail staff said it also is touchy to the presence of any alcohol. Beer brats, mouthwashes and even some toothpastes will be recognized. Inmates are given a list of products not to use or consume before tests to prevent any false positives.