BOSTON — AFTER serving two years in prison in Grand Rapids, Mich., for breaking and entering, John McRae was allowed to finish the last year of his sentence at home. Conditions are strict. Mr. McRae [not his real name] must leave the property only to commute to his two jobs. To make sure he complies, McRae wears the 1990s version of the ball and chain on his ankle - a lightweight plastic ``tether.''
Under his ``electronically monitored home arrest'' (EMHA) program, every time McRae leaves or returns home, the anklet signals the receptor in his home, which signals the monitor at the remote site. If he's not at home when he's supposed to be, or if he tampers with the anklet, or if he unplugs the home monitor in an effort to fool the system, a computer at the remote monitor site records the trouble. Staff are on hand 24 hours to prevent escapes.
Instead of the state's paying $55 a day to keep McRae incarcerated, he pays the state - $42 a week for using the tether, not to mention income tax.
``I'd rather be on this program than living in the corrections center,'' says the 33-year-old construction worker. Thanks to the EMHA system, he gets to ``eat home cookin' every day.''
McRae is one of 10,000 offenders in the United States doing time at home on electronic monitor, primarily to alleviate the overcrowding which is plaguing US prisons.
This has been a boon to makers of home monitoring systems. Sales have almost tripled over the past three years.
At present, 41 states are under federal court order to reduce overcrowding. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency estimates that by 1994, states will increase their prison populations by 68 percent, due primarily to the mandatory sentences imposed by the War on Drugs. The average annual cost to incarcerate prisoners is $25,000 per year, says the National Prisoner's Project in Washington.
Sales of home monitoring systems are expected to double each year for the next three years, reaching $50 million, says analyst Mark Morris of Hanifen, Imhoff Inc. in Denver. That sum, the equivalent of monitoring 50,000 offenders, represents ``just a little over 1 percent of the total potential,'' in a market of 4 million persons incarcerated or on probation, Morris calculates.
Eight companies have entered the market since the product was used first in 1984.
Based on 1989 revenues, BI Inc., of Boulder, Colo., dominated the market with 61 percent of sales. Three years ago, 11 state and local sites were using the Home Escort system; today the system is used in 110 sites, including international locations in Canada, Britain, and Australia. The company forsees new applications, such as monitoring systems for the elderly, the mentally handicapped, and children.
Among the other companies selling EMHA systems, Digital Products of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., held 16 percent of the market; Corrections Services Inc. of Ft. Lauderdale, 7 percent; and Vorec of Tarrytown, N.Y., 7 percent. The remaining 9 percent was split among Cincinnati Microwave, Digital Office Systems, Marconi of England, and Mitsubishi of Japan.
The advent of EMHA products is good news for state budgets. In Michigan, incarceration is about 10 times more expensive than the EMHA system - or $20,000 per year per incarcerated prisoner versus $2,100 per year per anklet, which is usually paid by the prisoner. Personnel costs account for the bulk of prison expenses. Michigan's EMHA program is the nation's largest, with 1,000 participants.
And good news for the community: Electronic monitoring has a much lower escape rate than incarceration - 4 percent compared to 17 percent from prisons and halfway houses, notes Laura Young, supervisor of the electronic monitoring program in Michigan's Department of Corrections. That state's prison system is overcrowded by 29 percent, according to the National Institute of Justice.
But best of all, says Ms. Young, the anklet allows the prisoner to become a productive part of society again, and to reestablish family relationships, work in community service, or attend school. Says Young, ``It's a far more rehabilitative atmosphere than a prison setting is.''