WASHINGTON – When Maryland officials tested their 9-year-old home- detention equipment last fall by “faking the year 2000,” they found that the ankle bracelets and voice verification systems that the program relies on shut down.
State officials say they are confident they can deal with any problems that might arise. If they do not, however, it could mean as many as 500 state prisoners under home detention will find themselves free to roam on Jan. 1, 2000.
“The equipment we have now will not function in the year 2000,” said Richard Sullivan, director of the state’s central home-detention unit. “In the worst-case scenario, we’ll tell it (the equipment) it’s 1998 so it will continue to function.”
Sullivan is soliciting bids, along with officials from the state’s juvenile home-detention program, for new monitoring systems that they hope to have in place this fall — just months before the feared Y2K bug bites.
Meanwhile, private contractors who provide home-detention monitoring for counties around the state said they are not scared. They have been assured by equipment manufacturers that their software is Y2K-compatible.
They had better be right: Licensing standards that take effect July 1 require those companies to be prepared for all possible millenium problems — including the potential loss of power and telephone service.
“The regulations require companies to properly monitor individuals sent to them by the court,” said Tom Fitzgerald, assistant executive director of the Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards. “They also require a contingency plan if the electricity or phone goes out.”
State officials and private companies acknowledge that prisoners, pretrial detainees and parolees might be freed — even if monitoring systems work — if electricity or phone service is cut off by the Y2K bug, as some have predicted.
“If the phone systems are down, we’re in trouble,” said Conard Carnell, director of community detention electronic monitoring at the Department of Juvenile Justice.
While ankle bracelets would continue working, telephone outages would sever their connection with the monitoring center. Detention violations would still be recorded, but not communicated until the phones were working again.
Because most equipment has battery backup, power outages would cause less severe problems, although an outage extending more than three days would outlast most backup systems.
If the phones went out, Sullivan said he could dispatch officers with “field verifiers” that can pick up signals from ankle bracelets in the vicinity without having to rely on phone lines. In the case of an extended power outage, he said, he would round up detainees and bring them to the gym at the Maryland State Penitentiary or to extra spots in the state’s “boot camp” program.
“As it (an outage) got up to 36 hours, we would start pulling them all in,” Sullivan said.
Carnell said his program could survive a short power outage by forwarding monitors to databases in other states, that could then communicate any violations back to his office. But a widespread or extended power outage would pose a problem.
Fitzgerald said if any of Maryland’s eight private home-detention companies lose monitoring capabilities during Y2K, the state could inflict punishments ranging from reprimands to license revocation.
Most of the companies said they are not worried about system failures, though.
“I haven’t been told we’re going to have problems,” said Trina Wagner, owner of Upper Marlboro-based Monitoring Services Inc. “A lot of people deal with these types of computer programs. I talk to them all the time. I’m sure it would come up before January.”
Charles Winchester, co-owner of Advantage Sentencing Alternatives Programs Inc. in Towson, said the companies told him the same thing — but he was not sure whether to believe them.
“We still have concerns and make our concerns known to them,” Winchester said. “Suppose they’re telling you something that’s not true?”
The private contractors said their systems are not designed for minute-by- minute monitoring, so a brief lapse would not be a problem.
Most companies report violations to the courts the business day after they occur, and it is up to the courts to take it from there, said Charlene Dunn, owner of Alternative Correctional Concepts in Baltimore.
“We have no authority to lock them up, no authority to commit them,” Dunn said. “All we do is monitor their curfew for the courts.”
Private companies said they are not concerned about their charges wreaking havoc on society because most are on probation, not serving sentences.
“We’re not dealing with populations where you have to call out the dogs and chase after them,” said John Kent, director of Home Confinement Services in Rockville.
Detainees in the government-run programs, by contrast, are often on home detention as an alternative to prison.
“It’s kind of scary,” Carnell said. “It may be an open opportunity for people who want to … go out and commit crimes.”
Still, both Carnell and Sullivan said they were confident they could handle monitoring manually if they had to.
“I’m not one of those gloom-and-doom guys,” said Sullivan. “My belief is we can live through it. We worked before we had computers. … We might have to get calluses on our hands, but we can make it work.”