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Home detention pays off

October 23, 1997


Staff Writer

Bob spends most of his time inside his Greencastle, Pa., home, slowly counting down the days to Nov. 21 when he will be free.

Nearing the end of his 90-day sentence in Washington County's home-detention program for violating probation, he struggles to avoid going stir-crazy.

But Bob, 47, who asked that his last name not be used, said it is nothing like the two months he spent this summer at the Washington County Detention Center, where he was jailed after his second drunken-driving charge of the year.


"It beats being there. I'd much rather be at home," he said.

Even so, Bob said serving his sentence at home is no picnic. First there's the ankle bracelet he must wear 24 hours a day. And the 10 or so random phone calls and breathalyzer tests he must take.

"You're still in jail," he said. "My home is my jail."

Bob is one of 25 people currently serving at-home sentences handed them in Washington County courts.

Figuring it costs $33.90 per day to jail an inmate, the home-detention program has saved the county more than $1.4 million since it began in 1989, according to the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

In 1994, savings from the program peeked at $292,857. Then equipment started breaking down.

Cpl. Terri Blair, who runs the program, said the department had 15 or 16 working units out of an original 25. When officials began searching for a new system, they looked not only for reliability, but for a more advanced system, Blair said.

They settled on the BI Home Escort System 600, a system that keeps tabs on virtually every move inmates make. The sheriff's department leases the system for $4,200 a month, and has the option to buy it after three years.

Put into use in August, the system includes 30 ankle bracelets and breathalyzer/voice verification units, a computer at the detention center, a laptop computer, and a "drive-by" unit that allows deputies to drive past inmates' homes or jobs and make sure they are where they are supposed to be.

The ankle bracelet never comes off. It is water resistant and tamper-proof, Blair said.

Electronic link

Because of an electronic link to a sensor connected to the home-detention inmates' telephone, officials know when convicts enter and leave their homes. If a convict tries to sneak out of the house at an unauthorized time, Blair or one of her deputies will know.

The old system also came with a breathalyzer, and a camera ensured that inmates could not have someone else take the test for them. But while the old system randomly called inmates, Blair said inmates could be out of the house between calls.

"We never knew for sure he was home," she said.

With the new system, an inmate has 10 minutes to prepare for a breathalyzer test when the unit buzzes. The inmate places his or her face against the device and speaks to pass a voice verification test.

After passing the test, the inmate is instructed to blow into the device, which can determine if an inmate has consumed alcohol.

Amy, 22, a Hagerstown mother of three who is serving a one-year sentence at home for theft and bad checks, anxiously awaits her Jan. 4 release date. When she began the sentence, the old equipment was in use.

Shame of the bracelet

The change, however, makes little difference, she said. The biggest drawback is the shame of the black ankle bracelet, she said.

"I was embarrassed at first," she said.

Amy said she has been working out since she has been confined to her home. She leaves only to attend church on Sundays, shop for groceries once a month and report to the detention center each week.

At least she can take care of her kids, Amy said, but said it has been difficult.

"My 4-year-old asked, 'Mom, can you call the jail and ask if we can go to the park?'" she said. "Sometimes I wonder who's being punished, them or me."

Those who have jobs are able to spend more time out of their homes - when they work. But they must coordinate their work schedules with jail officials and endure the hardships of home confinement.

And it's not cheap.

Inmates pay a minimum of $50 per week for the privilege of home detention. They also must pay $11.25 for each of the random urine drug tests that are administered each month.

Still, after sleeping in jail on a plastic mattress and pillow on a small metal bed with five other men, Bob said he wouldn't change his circumstances.

"It's much better when you're sleeping in your own bed," he said.

Following the rules

It's better for the county, too, Blair said. She said about 100 inmates - all nonviolent offenders with no violent criminal record - enter the program each year. Of those, about 86 percent complete their sentences without breaking the rules.

In exchange, she said, the county saves thousands of dollars. This is especially advantageous when an inmate has severe medical problems that taxpayers ordinarily would pay for.

It also frees space in an overflowing county jail, where there currently are only 12 empty male bunks and no available female spaces, Blair said.

"There is no room in the inn," she said. "That's why we'd like to take it up to 50 next year if we can."

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