The conditions inside the Fulton County Jail system are dire. Inmates at one of the jails in Atlanta, Georgia, are sleeping on the floor in plastic trays. Cell doors hang off hinges, footage from one local news report shows, and leaked water pools on the floor in some areas. Last September, one person was found dead and covered in bed bugs.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which runs multiple jails around Atlanta and has been granted more funding to fix the problems, is also in the process of rolling out a new surveillance system that can track inmates to precise levels. Across the region’s jails, hundreds of sensors are being embedded into the walls. Using radio frequencies, these communicate with wristbands issued to inmates.
The system, which was created by Georgia-based firm Talitrix, can track an inmate’s heartbeat, determine their location every 30 seconds, and create 3D images showing who comes into contact with whom. Documents WIRED obtained through a public record request, including a legal agreement, statements of work, and internal PowerPoint presentations, describe how the monitoring system operates and provide a glimpse into its inner workings.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and Talitrix claim the system can help make understaffed jails more efficient and increase overall safety, while monitoring heart rates can alert staff to an inmate’s potential health problems or suicide attempts. Critics, meanwhile, say monitoring technologies subject inmates to more surveillance and fail to address deeper issues with the criminal justice system.
The Talitrix system is one of a number of electronic monitoring devices being deployed in the sprawling web of local jails in the United States—and it may be one of the most sophisticated. Some appear to focus on suicide risk, while others have used RFID chips that are manually scanned. As jails and prisons face staffing shortages, they’ve increasingly turned to automation to monitor and control people caught up in the system. At the same time, academic researchers have said inmates are “one of the best surveilled, data-fied and documented populations,” without a choice to opt out.
“Inside the Walls”
Talitrix’s tracking system is made up of two parts: the physical infrastructure—sensors embedded in the jail and Fitbit-like wearables—and its software that allows corrections officers to monitor data being collected and receive alerts.
Talitrix first started working with Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in September 2021, company documents show. The firm initially ran a trial of its system within one of the region’s jails while it was developing the technology, and it has been expanding its use since February of this year. In total, the documents show, 750 sensors (costing $350 each) are to be installed and 1,000 wristbands (at $130 each) provided. The sensors are being placed around the jail but not within cells, those involved say. Use of the software costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
The plan is for around 450 inmates to wear the wristbands as part of a deal at the region’s main Rice Street jail, says Justin Hawkins, CEO of Talitrix. This includes the psychiatric and acute medical wards. (Lt Col Jarrett Gorlin, from the Sheriff’s Office, confirms that the department has been trialing the wristbands and is planning to further roll out the technology, although a “timeline for the full deployment is yet to be determined.”)