The shadow of penal supervision

Pervasive Punishment: Long journeys and an unhappy ending?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of travelling to the University of Chicago, the University of Minnesota and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (in New York) to talk about Pervasive Punishment. One of the lovely things about the Mid-Career Fellowship is that it provides some funds to allow me to ‘road-test’ the book. I’ll be making another trip to Brussels and Leiden in early June to do the same with some key European colleagues. I’ve chosen to visit these five cities because of the many wonderful colleagues in each place doing important work on ‘mass supervision’ or in adjacent fields. I’ll perhaps post again in a few days to try to summarise some of what I learned along the way but, in broad terms, the trip to the USA was very encouraging. People really seemed to respond well both to the arguments I’m developing in the book and to the unusual; mix of methods through which I’m trying to present them.

Along the way, I did some serious thinking about chapter 7: the final chapter of the book. In it, I plan to offer two possible futures for supervision: The chapter’s main sub-headings are ‘supervision unleashed’ and ‘supervision restrained’. Each of them will feature a different ending to the short story that runs through the book. As with previous episodes, I wanted to get some feedback on how the story might end in each case; as you’ll have guessed, one ending will be dystopian, the other will be (practically!) utopian.  To sum up the story so far, Joe has been placed on supervision (involving probation and electronic monitoring). Pauline is his supervisor. She is a somewhat battle-weary social worker, struggling to hold on to her values and her enthusiasm in the face of a high caseload and the onslaught of managerialism. Norm is her modernising supervisor, who genuinely believes in chasing the Key Performance Indicators as a way of efficiently serving the public interest. In the penultimate episode, Joe had visited a group called the Conviction Collective, made up of people that have experience of criminal justice and want to work to support one another and reform the system. Pauline had thought that Joe might find some purpose and some support there — and indeed, his first encounter with the group had awoken something in him.

12 months have passed since that hopeful moment.


VII-a    Administering shocks and sickness

Joe heard two sounds as he woke: his own low moan and the insistent, monotonous electronic bell tolling from his ankle bracelet. He fumbled for the clock—it read 08.01 – he had 59 minutes to get to the probation office for his check-in. He knew that somewhere, somehow, some algorithm had determined that this was the moment to test his commitment, to strengthen his resolve, to keep him from temptation. At least that was how Norm had explained it, but Joe saw that the bracelet-bell was a call to worship, an invitation to obey, a hell-fire warning to the walking dead. He pressed the button to acknowledge the signal and the bell stopped.

Joe washed and dressed cautiously, taking care not to let his sock break the contact between bracelet and skin. He knew that any interruption in the signal that allowed remote analysis of his pulse and sweat could constitute an infraction. He had no wish to repeat his recent experience of a weekend in the compliance cells as part of the new SaCS (Swift and Certain Sanction) approach. That had been a high price to pay for trying to use ice cubes and hypoallergenic wipes to relieve the skin irritation that the bracelet caused.

Forty minutes later, Joe was glad to find a reporting booth empty at the probation office. It looked like a cross between an arcade game, a confession and an upright coffin. He took a deep breath and sat inside, pulling the black curtain across. The touchscreen invited him to provide his hand-print while the retinal scan double checked and confirmed his identity. When prompted, Joe put on the virtual reality headset and was met by the smiling face of ‘Virpro’, the virtual probation officer. She spoke in slow, soft, maternal tones:

“Good morning, Joe. Well done. You have arrived on time and drug- and alcohol-free. We have no record of adverse contact with the authorities since your last appointment. There are 5 months and 2 weeks of your revised order remaining to be served. The conditions remain the same. Would you like me to remind you of them?”

“No, thank you”, Joe replied.

“That is your choice. Do you require any support or counselling at this time?”

“No, thank you”, Joe replied. He guessed he should probably show willing but couldn’t get out of the booth quickly enough. He felt suffocated.

“That is your choice. Please wait for a message from future Joe, after which you are free to go.”

This part always freaked Joe out. Virpro smiled her farewell and faded from view; in her place came an avatar of Joe, looking a few years older but well-groomed, confident, contented, suited and booted. His ‘brief motivational intervention’ was becoming as predictable as it was sinister:

“Hi Joe. I’m proud of you. You’ve done really well since that last infraction. The Swift and Certain Sanction really seems to have worked for you. You’re back on track, pal. And there are only a few months to go until you are a free man. Just keep at it. Keep your head down. Keep away from troublemakers”.

Future Joe paused for effect, losing his saccharine smile and replacing it with the furrowed brow of his most earnest expression. Though his intense stare met Joe’s eyes, it also seemed to look right through him, somewhere into the middle distance.

“Joe: Remember, you can become me, if you want it enough, if you really commit. I can be your future. Meantime, take care and look after us both”.

Outside, Joe steadied himself on the railing, taking in as much air as he could. As he walked away, he wondered what Pauline was doing now. He hadn’t expected to miss her this much. 

Upstairs, Norm looked at the three huge screens in front of him: 59’s green flag caught his eye. One of Pauline’s cases, he recalled. He had to admit that he kind of missed the lifers; the office was very quiet without them.

Still, Norm took some pride in that fact that he was now managing 412 low-medium risk cases himself; or rather, he was maintaining and monitoring the system that was managing them. It was remarkably efficient now that it was up and running, even if it would take 25 years (with caseloads at current levels) to recoup the installation costs. In the long run, it was worth it. Now that the infrastructure existed, the possibilities of combining remote biometric monitoring with VR and AI really were limitless.

That said, Norm still harboured some doubts. The new GATE (Geo-Aversion Tag Enhancer) tech troubled him. These tags could respond to remote signals to release nausea-inducing drugs implanted in pellets under the skin. In an emergency, the could issue taser-style shocks. Both measures trained and disabled offenders who strayed beyond their permitted spaces, or showed the classic signs of over-stimulation associated with imminent risk of offending.

Norm had a lot of sympathy for the argument that GATE allowed high risk offenders to be managed safely in the community. As the marketing slogan said: ‘GATE: It trains and restrains’. The pilot studies seemed promising, in spite of one or two admittedly very unfortunate cases. Yet, even if the offenders had to consent to GATE to avoid imprisonment, and even if they signed the disclaimers, he didn’t much like the idea that hewas administering shocks and causing sickness, or even administering a system that did so.

Still, he thought it was probably better to keep his doubts to himself. This wasn’t punishment after all; it was just supervision for public safety.



As usual, please let me know your thoughts. And fear not, an alternative ending is coming soon!



  1. Louise Newman

    Not the future I would want to be part of! (From any perspective).

  2. Fascinating as ever, Fergus. I just hope there will more than two scenarios. Moreover, I hope probation developments will take place locally as well as globally in many different ways. As it happens now, there maybe some global trends, but there are also local developments that contradict some of these trends. See for instance developments in Czech Republic towards restorative justice. I am very keen to see the other options 🙂 Good luck with your very useful project. Ioan

    • Thanks Ioan. Yes, of course — I think there are many more possibilities than these two. And I’m glad of that! The last chapter of the book will try to articulate some broad principles that might guide us in thinking about which stories to pursue and which to dismiss…

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