Microsoft’s iron cage: Prison surveillance and e-carceration
Tech corporations are expanding the scope of surveillance across the correctional pipeline, but who pays the price?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of “Crime and Punishment”, once wrote, “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” Updated for the 21st century, our “degree of civilisation” might be revealed by the technology used inside them.
For Microsoft, prisons represent a market. In recent years, the company and its business partners have started providing an array of surveillance and Big Data analytics solutions to prisons, courts and community supervision programmes.
This comes against a backdrop of global protests against police violence along with calls to defund the police and address institutional racism at every level of the criminal justice system.
In response to this, on June 23, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent an email to his employees, assuring them the company is committed to “address[ing] racial injustice and inequity, and unequivocally believe that Black lives matter.”
The company claims that through their “justice reform initiative”, Microsoft will supply digital technologies that increase police transparency and “direct people into treatment alternatives instead of incarceration”.
But this is not the full picture of Microsoft’s relationship with criminal justice.
What the email did not mention was that for years, Microsoft has partnered with a company called Tribridge to build a corrections management suite – based on a flagship product, Offender 360 – which includes an inmate surveillance and risk scoring solution, a “youth offender” management solution and risk assessment solutions for pretrial and the courts.
Microsoft has also worked on electronic monitoring solutions with partners for persons under “community supervision”, and has its own Microsoft-branded “Digital Prison Management Solution”. Additionally, Microsoft partners with Morocco-based Netopia Solutions, which offers its own “Prison Management Solution” in Africa.
Taken together, Microsoft and its partners’ carceral solutions cover the entire correctional pipeline, from “juvenile delinquency” to pretrial and probation, into prison, and after inmates are released on parole.
Microsoft’s involvement in the carceral state reveals how tech corporations are expanding the scope of surveillance and high-tech tools that discipline and punish communities of colour and the poor. For Microsoft, incarceration is a lucrative opportunity, as “Digital transformation makes it possible to consider prison as a business.”
The Microsoft police state
Microsoft has a little-known law enforcement-focused division, Public Safety and Justice, which provides integrations and services on its Azure cloud in partnership with independent software vendors operating away from public view. Microsoft’s primary business in criminal justice is carried out with its partners, and it largely generates revenue by licensing software and/or renting out storage capacity, servers and software running on cloud infrastructure.
In addition to an extensive partner ecosystem, Microsoft offers its own law enforcement solutions, such as its Domain Awareness System (DAS), called Microsoft Aware – a surveillance and analytics system first developed in tandem with the NYPD and unveiled publicly in 2012. Since then, Aware has been purchased by police forces in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Singapore and Brazil.
With Aware, people are monitored by CCTV cameras and city sensor dragnets, subjected to facial recognition, video analytics, and surveillance-based police patrols, supplemented by Big Data analytics. As we will see later, Microsoft Aware forms the foundation for its own Digital Prison Management Software.
In response to a request for comment about the software in this article, Microsoft stated, “Microsoft has nothing to share”.
Offender 360: To surveil, predict and analyse the correctional pipeline
Microsoft’s first flagship product for correctional services dates back to around 2009, when the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) embarked on a multi-phase, $30-million overhaul of its antiquated computer systems.
At the time, the IDOC managed 49,000 offenders in custody and 28,000 parolees across 28 facilities using more than 40 separate computer applications. Search inquiries required customisation and could take up to two weeks.
Microsoft and its partner Tribridge, a tech company that specialises in business applications and cloud solutions, Microsoft built the IDOC a searchable web-based solution called Offender 360 to centralise databases in the cloud and upgrade its prison management capabilities.
Then-Governor Patrick Quinn said at the time, Microsoft’s “cutting-edge technology will give Illinois one of the most advanced criminal justice information systems in the country.”
An early brochure listed a variety of features that would integrate, index, and expand every bit of data available about inmates for computer-based functionality and analytics:
- Tracking capabilities include an inmate’s physical location – their movement history between specific locations, such as a prison, and within them – and identification by attributes such as height, weight, scars and marks (such as tattoos), religion, and known aliases.
- Categorisation and classification features index attributes such as security characteristics (for example, aggression level and offender grade) and case and behavioural histories.
- Search features allow prison authorities to locate inmates of interest and observe their profiles for ad-hoc queries and real-time data analysis. For example, prison authorities can search for “inmates under the age of 50 with a projected parole date within five years” or inmates “classified as highly aggressive, high escape risk, with known affiliations to one or many security threat groups”.
The constant stream of data collection becomes a form of behavioural surveillance that follows prisoners wherever they go.
Monica Cosby spent 20 years in Illinois prisons, and is now co-director of Organizing with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration (MUAVI). She explained to me the problem with continuous prisoner profiling and its effects on the inmate population.
Everyone has a “Master File” kept by the IDOC “that has all your info in it,” Cosby explained. This includes your behavioural history, staff assaults (which, Cosby notes, could include false accusations), medical records, inmate property – they monitor basically everything you have and do while in prison, she said.
The data collected can be used against the inmates. For example, the record of alleged inmate “misbehaviour” can be brought up at a parole hearing, and Big Data analytics can deem inmates as prone to violence or recidivism. However, the fine details about what is collected and evaluated by analytics are often not available to the public.
Cosby and other advocates fear the surveillance of prisoners has only expanded as new technologies, such as iPads used for education or entertainment, are introduced in the prison population.
Over time, each data point creates a record and with it a permanent chain to the past. “There is an inherent narrative in the data and the presentation of that data … that is always going to be held against Black, brown, and poor people [who are already suspected of being criminal],” Cosby said.
In Illinois, the work of Microsoft and Tribridge was not limited to adult incarceration. The Youth 360 system was designed for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), which manages the state’s five juvenile correctional facilities.
Youth 360 is similar to Offender 360 in that ingests a wide range of data about its subjects. Youth 360 data can be linked to other data systems, such as school and public health systems, and it hosts Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI) data to profile “criminogenic risks, needs, and strengths.” YASI is used for every youth put on probation.
For many youth – especially children of colour, disabled, lower-class and other marginalised groups – schools can be hostile sites of policing and surveillance. As a result, schools often become entry points into the carceral system, in what scholars and activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline”.
Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle-based activist, teacher and editor of the magazine Rethinking Schools, explained to me that young people of colour are disproportionately subjected to a “school-to-prison nexus” in which schools “increasingly resemble jails themselves, so that you have metal detectors, and police, and random searches of students in the school building themselves, conditioning mostly BIPOC youth to accept a society that surveils them, that punishes them and that maintains gross inequality”.
“And then there’s an overlapping system of the school-to-prison pipeline that sends them from schools that are increasingly resembling prisons themselves into actual jails – whether that’s a youth jail for kids or getting them ready to go to an adult jail when they leave the school.”
The Seattle Times reports that in Seattle schools, racial disparities in youth discipline begin as early as the age of five. Over time, Black school children are suspended at four times the rate of white children, often for developmentally normal behaviours such as “disobedience” or “rule-breaking”. Nationwide, Black children are about five times more likely to be detained in juvenile justice facilities than white youngsters and are disproportionately sent from juvenile to adult court.
In Illinois, where Youth 360 is deployed, the racial dynamic is similar.
For Hagopian, tracking behaviour and creating risk scores for children is “about naming and shaming”.
“[It] sounds like it is straight out of [Orwell’s] ‘1984’,” he added.
In response to a request for comments, the IDOC requested a list of questions. Once they were sent, it responded, “the Department is declining participating in this interview.”
A third system, called Pretrial360, offers case management and predictive analytics software for the courts. Rolled out in Weld County and Mesa County, Colorado, in 2015, it shifts pretrial management from a resource-based model (where the defendant pays for bail) to a risk-based bail decision where risk assessments provide judges with information about defendants and inform decisions about holding or releasing alleged offenders who were arrested and charged before their trial. It also manages the supervision process if defendants are released from the county detention facility. While the fine details about Pretrial360 are not publicly available, some of its metrics include “criminal history tracking, mental illness, pending charges, past FTAs [failure to appear in court], and ability to track a monitoring device”.
Pretrial360 centralises data from criminal records, jails, police departments, and other data sources, which speeds up data assessments for Mesa County’s Criminal Justice Service Department (CJSD).
A variety of pretrial products are available on the market, such as Northpointe COMPAS and CorrectTech Pretrial. Proponents of pretrial software claim it can be used to keep more people out of jail or prison. When guided by algorithms, they argue, a court can quickly determine if a person is likely to skip trial or re-offend. Low-risk defendants can be promptly released back into the community and placed under the supervision of a probation officer. That officer can then use the pretrial software to manage the probation process, potentially adding more data points to the surveillance archives. Algorithms can also be used to calculate sentences.
But critics argue that for communities of colour – over-policed, discriminated against and disadvantaged by structural factors like inter-generational poverty and residential segregation – biased data and poorly designed software leads race-neutral algorithms to assign a higher risk score to Black people than white people with similar characteristics.
While judges often make the final decision about a defendant, and can override the software’s recommendations, evidence suggests the algorithms bias outcomes. In 2019, two academic studies found that Kentucky courts guided by pretrial algorithmic assessments produced outcomes more favourable to white than to Black defendants. A third study found that judges across the country guided by algorithms exhibit a class bias against the poor.
Risk assessment software is typically proprietary, so the “black box” algorithms shaping criminal justice cannot be scrutinised by the public. Certain variables in an algorithm might serve as proxies for race, such as formal education level, employment status, or criminal record, and therefore re-inscribe race – and racial bias – in a “criminal risk score”. Without an ability to understand how the systems work, everyone is simply asked to “trust” the software is fair and just, including defendants.
Expanding the correctional surveillance web
Even if correctional software did not produce racially biased risk assessments, people from all walks of life are now being swept into a rapidly expanding surveillance net where personal histories are archived by the state and carried along with them through each stage of correctional supervision.
Living with a Master File collected by the state thus becomes an endless burden. Once you are caught in the correctional system, any mistake or perceived misdeed can be held against you.
Prison correctional officers (COs) assign “tickets” to those they deem to be misbehaving. Yet “misbehaviour” is often in the eyes of the beholder, and COs face little accountability for potential abuse of the system.
MUAVI’s Monica Cosby said many of the “staff assaults” recorded in the Master File are “BS, [like the officers] got their toe stepped on while breaking up a fight”. In one incident, “one lady got a ‘staff assault’ [ticket] because the police ran into three different people, and her cane got knocked out of her hand because one of the people he bumped into bumped into her,” she explained.
When “tickets” resulting from correctional bias or abuse of authority are recorded in an inmate’s Master File, it can have an effect on that inmate’s chance of getting parole. “[A parole board may say] ‘we don’t think you’re a good candidate for parole because you got a ticket 10 years ago that says “staff assault”,’ when really, the police ran past you and tripped over your wheelchair,” Cosby said.
Issues of staff abuse and even outright fabrication make data collection and analysis all the more problematic.
Tribridge’s three core products – Offender 360, Youth 360 and Pretrial360 – drastically expand data collection and analysis. The software brings together “separate silos” of information – be it from schools, medical systems, or disparate correctional databases – to give a complete “360-degree view” of each person. Individuals can then be compared against other people in the database as part of an ongoing (involuntary) human experiment said to identify traits like aggressiveness or predict behaviours, such as “escape risk” or the likelihood of committing a crime.
Under the guise of “data collection” and “better management” of people, Big Data systems are designed to keep tabs on people in increasingly fine detail – at a profit for tech corporations.
In October 2014, Cook County, Illinois, the second-most populous county in the US, added Offender 360 to its jails.
In July 2017, Microsoft partner DXC Technology, a Fortune 500 giant, acquired Tribridge and re-branded its Offender 360 software under the DXC label as “DXC Offender360”.
The following year, DXC pitched its software for use in Miami-Dade County – the seventh most populous county in the US.
The contract details a staggering variety of features. Capabilities include the ability to track the movement of inmates across facilities using barcode scanners, wristbands, mobile devices, or biometric readers; real-time “head counts” of inmates at all locations; and alerts for probation violation.
DXC also says its software can help track down and detain people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Microsoft has come under fire in recent years for its contract servicing ICE, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security which detains and deports undocumented immigrants. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadela, and its president, Brad Smith, defend the contract, stating that they support immigrants and that their company simply provides ICE with services for moving email, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.
Other counties that have inked contracts for Offender360’s correctional software include San Diego County, CA, Placer County, CA, Santa Clara County, CA, and Maricopa County, AZ (the fourth-most populous US county). Public records also indicate a launch in San Francisco, CA.
Over the past few decades, US prison populations dramatically expanded under the “war on crime” that disproportionately targeted people of colour. Today, while the US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has at least 20 percent of the world’s known prison population.
However, there is a second form of incarceration less spoken about, called “e-carceration”. As crime has dropped and prison populations in the US have modestly declined, the criminal justice system has increased the number of people released on probation (where courts order offenders to be supervised in their communities instead of sending them to prison) and parole (where prisoners are released under supervision after serving all or part of their sentence). Other supervised communities include those on pretrial release, juveniles, and immigrants awaiting the results of asylum or deportation cases.
Probation and parole are collectively known as “community supervision”. When a person is put under community supervision, the courts generate a set of terms and conditions for the sentence. A person may be put in house arrest or given curfews. They may be allowed out of the house from 10 am to 4 pm only, Monday to Friday. They may have to undergo drug and alcohol tests – which can be demanded by an officer at any given time, without warning – and/or be required to obtain employment.
Probation and parole officers typically use technology like GPS-enabled ankle bracelets for electronic monitoring (EM). Human rights advocates have objected to the use of EM as a means to “release” people from correctional facilities, arguing that it instead creates “digital prisons” that extend incarceration into the offender’s own personal community.
James Kilgore is a research scholar at the University of Illinois’s Center for African Studies in Champaign-Urbana. After spending six years in prison, he became a respected advocate for prison abolition, and has published high-profile works about incarceration and human rights.
Kilgore was under community corrections after he was released from prison in 2009, and was given an ankle monitor to make sure he was home during the hours set by the courts. Under EM, the GPS device must always be on, and supervision officers can show up to conduct searches at any time. He described the psychological effects.
“When I went to bed at night, I kept having to feel my parole agent was laying across the bottom of the bed under the covers,” he told me.
“It’s a sense of always being watched, never sure if you’re going to do the right thing. If the device has technical flaws, it might lose its charge or signal. If it lost signal, I’d have to go and stand out in my front yard at two o’clock in the morning so the signal would pick up. You always feel something is going to go wrong and you’re going to get called in and sent back to prison simply because the device doesn’t do the right thing.”
Kilgore added: “It places huge stresses on your families because A) they have to worry about whether or not you make it back in time if you go out with them, they worry more than you do to get you back in time, and B) then they have to do things for you because you can’t go out. If you need something, if you get a headache and need some aspirin, they’ve got to go do it for you… It becomes a burden.”
Many, he said, are “going to find it very difficult, if not impossible, to get work, because A) you’ve got restrictions of your hours, and B) a lot of people don’t want you working if you have this big, clunky thing on your leg. Or your parole agent can show up at your workplace to look around… They have a 24/7 search warrant for any place that you are.”
The result is that those under electronic monitoring who do find work tend to end up in “part-time, precarious jobs”, Kilgore said. “Your hours are not predictable, your days are not predictable, but you have to be predictable to your parole agent.”
DXC offers solutions for community supervision. Its Offender360 software for Miami-Dade County lists the Sentinel Omnilink GPS Trackable Ankle Monitor and Fleetmatics GPS fleet tracking software (acquired by Verizon) as software “interfaces” for the Offender360 application. Additionally, it offers the PUMA smartphone software for probation and parole.
Monica Cosby was placed under electronic monitoring for 60 days after she was released from prison and put on parole. Cosby told me, “there are a gazillion rules to follow about where you can go, where you can live, who you can associate with”, which is tied to your Master File.
This can lead to isolation, especially for communities of colour: “A lot of this [information in your Master File] determines where you can be and who you can communicate with when you come out… You can’t talk to anybody that is in a gang, or is a ‘security threat’ – or is affiliated [with a gang] – that’s everybody” because so many people know people who are part of an alleged “gang”, she said.
Moreover, “all of this data that is held actively targets people”, Cosby said. With electronic monitoring, officers can show up to search parolees at any time. In effect, EM “brings the prison to you, it makes your crib a satellite of the prison”. This “puts everyone in proximity to the police”, leading to further isolation from the community.
In response to a request for comments, DXC Technology asked for a list of questions. Once they were sent, it did not respond to further emails.
Microsoft’s carceral solutions in the UK
In addition to DXC, Microsoft has developed its own Azure solution for electronic monitoring, what it calls “next generation offender tracking”, powered by the Microsoft Internet of Things. The solution, created for UK authorities, strives to alert police and probation officers in real-time to parole violations.
In the UK, Microsoft is also advertising its controversial Domain Awareness System, the Microsoft Aware surveillance platform, as its very own Digital Prison Management Solution (DPMS) for prisons. A product that combines “Microsoft technology with corrections operational knowledge”, the solution “empowers agencies and prison authorities to ingest and collaborate on data to respond to real-time threats and hazards whilst streamlining operations,” providing “a feature rich situational awareness platform” for prison authorities.
For Microsoft, this was years in the making. In a 2016 blog post, “Digital Technology and the Prison of the Future”, Microsoft envisioned prisons monitored with CCTV, drones and IoT devices, including “finger, face, and eye recognition to identify inmates” as well as RFID tagging and tracking bands.
Much like its New York City surveillance solution, the DPMS seeks to provide authorities with a 21st century God-like view of their human subjects. “Law enforcement organisations and prison authorities,” Microsoft explains, “have many powerful tools to provide insight regarding violent crime and terrorism, including real-time sensors (e.g., remote detectors, automated car registration plate readers, and closed-circuit television [CCTV] cameras) as well as traditional law enforcement data (such as … police … and national security records).”
Yet they face a problem: “These tools are disconnected from each other, requiring enforcement staff to manually assemble a complete picture of a potential threat or crime.” Authorities require “a solution that can ‘fuse’ this disparate sensor and system data to help provide instant, comprehensive situational awareness and help investigative and response activities” to keep both “prisoners and staff safe.”
Enter Microsoft. With the Digital Prison Management Solution, prisons can ingest and process CCTV cameras, body-worn cameras, and tactical system data for applications like crowd control, perimeter breaches, and recorded incidents. Using surveillance devices, authorities can “virtually patrol a custodial community 24×7.” The Solution provides “geospatial analysis”, and claims it will “detect threats” by “aggregating massive amounts of data”, “make data-driven decisions”, “eliminate investigative silos”, and “enhance intelligence capabilities” for things like “collabor[ation] with detectives, patrol, and other analysts”. For prisons, Microsoft’s DPMS appears unprecedented in scope and sophistication.
‘Africa Partner of the Year’: Netopia Prison Management Solution
Microsoft has also expanded its footprint into African prisons. Its partner, Morocco-based Netopia Solutions, provides software called “Prison Management Solution”, or PMS. Netopia describes the solution as “a modern system dedicated to the management and monitoring of the prisoners, from their incarceration to their release.” The software is listed on Microsoft’s AppSource website, added in January 2019.
With Netopia’s PMS, prisoner data is collected (sentence, health, social activities, education and other data) and is shared “between different institutions and players”. Software features include, among others, “electronic agenda planning of internal and external movements”, inmate activities, as well as dashboard features, reports and statistics. Other prison solutions include acquisition and verification of biometric data, “automatic sentence calculation” and “escape management”.
In 2015, Amnesty International issued a report on Moroccan security forces torturing prisoners. Methods used include “beatings, asphyxiation, simulated drowning, psychological and sexual violence”, and are directed at “protesters, political or student activists, as well as people suspected of terrorism.” London-based NGO Adala UK also documented torture and abuse of Sahrawi political prisoners in Moroccan prisons. The Moroccan government condemns the use of torture, and claims to be reforming its prison system. However, it continues to imprison human rights activists, and stands accused of ongoing prison abuse.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, prisoners face overcrowding and extreme abuse. The systems are connected to the legacy of colonialism. Nigerian-born Biko Agozino, a professor of Criminology at Virginia Tech University, told me, “In Africa, we managed to live for thousands of years without building a single prison… For Africa, the prison is a legacy of colonialism. All the prisons in Africa were built by colonisers [for slave trafficking and social control over Africans]”.
Netopia has been a partner to Microsoft since 2004. In 2017, Netopia was named a Microsoft “Africa Partner of the Year”. In the press brief, Microsoft praised its software, explaining that: “Their eGov suite called CIVIS includes biometric passport solutions, prison management and healthcare assistance modules being rapidly adopted. Recognised this year with the Microsoft eGov Innovation Grant, Microsoft Azure platform is the next generation platform helping Netopia scale their solutions across new markets. Netopia were successful in transforming their business model and now going to offer their solutions as managed IP.”
While it is not clear where exactly Netopia Prison Management Solution is deployed, Microsoft stated that “Netopia is [a Microsoft partner/vendor] in Morocco with a deep focus on transforming digitally, Government services in North and Central Africa”.
Sohela Surajpal, a recent graduate of the Pretoria Centre for Human Rights who wrote her dissertation on prison abolition in Africa, told me that many Africans “get lost in the system” during pretrial, because “the courts are overburdened” and those arrested are often poor and unable to afford legal assistance. In some countries, if their records get lost, “they will now most likely spend the rest of their lives in the prison because nobody even knows they are there”. Software can help avoid these horrific problems, she remarked.
On the flip side, Surajpal said, Netopia describes a system that “creates an expanded carceral state with a lot more power and control of the people in prisons.” In many African countries, “inmates can leave and go visit their family or walk around town”, she said. “This is the result of how these communities think about justice, and because there are not enough resources and will to control people.” This approach, “may not be perfect, but is more humane than locking people away in cages”.
Surajpal said systems like Netopia’s PMS “could do a lot of damage to these kinds of open-air prisons.” When companies start to build in “escape probability” and “monitoring prisoners and their movement, we begin to cement prisons in the way that they exist in the US”, she said.
Moreover, with the “shift towards more surveillance that we’re seeing in parts of the justice system … if states [obtain] the technology to surveil far more effectively, it’s only going to push this extreme surveillance attitude that is being adopted.”
Surajpal noted, “Africa has its fair share of dictators or authoritarian governments, and very homophobic countries.” She worries with “technology which allows governments to track people more effectively, make projections about prisoner behaviour, and risks of re-offending … you equip governments to use prisons more effectively to pursue this authoritarian, prejudicial mandate.”
Netopia Solutions did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.
Microsoft public relations: A house built on sand
In July, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commemorated John Lewis, the US congressperson and civil rights legend who had just passed away.
John Lewis taught us to "Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never lose that sense of hope." He instilled hope in us all, and more importantly, showed us how to turn that hope into progress. May he rest in peace.
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) July 18, 2020
Lewis was arrested 45 times during the course of his life, and was sent to prison for using a “white” restroom in Jackson, Mississippi. At the Parchman prison, guards dehumanised Lewis and his comrades for resisting Jim Crow segregation.
Decades later, the cruel and inhumane conditions of prisons remain intact, in the United States, in Africa and elsewhere. For Dennis Childs, author of “Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary”, “the [prison industrial complex] represents a system of transferring public wealth over to powerful corporate and political interests that are wreaking harm on an unimaginable scale.”
In true capitalist form, Microsoft offers prisons its Aware Solution at a price per head: £504 ($679) to £2602.74 ($3,505.98) per person per day.