Court-ordered ankle monitors bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. every year. Law enforcement uses the devices to monitor more than a hundred thousand people every day, a number that’s expanding rapidly. They play a key role in American criminal justice. For such a crucial technology, though, they began in an unlikely place: a lowly Spider-Man newspaper comic from the 1970s.
The Amazing Spider-Man comic by Stan Lee and John Romia ran in newspapers across the country throughout the late 1970s. One storyline that lasted from August of 1977 into September featured the evil Kingpin, who attaches a tracking device to Spider-Man. You can blame Spider-Man for planting the seed in a judge’s mind.
Judge Jack Love from Bernalillo County, New Mexico saw the series and would later credit Spider-Man with inspiring him to approach an engineer about producing a tracking device for low-level criminals. He became one of the first judges to use the authority of the bench to mandate offenders wear location-monitoring devices. The Colorado engineer he partnered with, Michael Goss, liked to call the ankle monitor “electronic handcuffs.” He would later refer to his device—official name Goss-Link—as a “goldmine,” though his own company would go belly-up.
Judge Love was himself the first person to wear the Goss-Link as an experiment, putting the ankle monitor on his own leg to see how it operated. A newspaper article syndicated by UPI in 1983 quotes the judge about the experience.
“It put me on a very, very short leash,” Love said at the time, even claiming that he wore the device in the shower.
How did it work? The Goss-Link was roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes and communicated with a receiver that was attached to the home telephone. The device sent a signal every 60 seconds to the receiver, which was able to dial a central computer if the device was found to be out of range during one of those pings every minute. In this case, being out of range was roughly 150 feet from your home telephone.
A syndicated newspaper story from 1983 sheds light on Love’s reasoning. He notes that the device would be, “ideal for people convicted of drunk driving, who are required to stay out of their cars or bars at night.”
Love assigned the monitoring devices to at least three defendants , all on a work release program were on “home curfew” from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. each day, with the first man fitted with a Goss-Link in April of 1983, according to a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. That man was jailed for writing bad checks and had an infant at home, which was why Judge Love decided to start the experiment with him. The unnamed man reportedly finished his 30-day sentence wearing the ankle monitor but was arrested for shoplifting two months later.
The second man in Judge Love’s trial was a veteran of the Vietnam War and had violated his probation by receiving stolen property. That man kept to his curfew while wearing the ankle bracelet but apparently showed up drunk on his fifth day, a violation of his probation. He was sent back to jail.
The third man who was outfitted with the Goss-Link had been picked up for a DUI a second time. He finished his 30-day curfew with the ankle monitor, and it’s unknown whether he ever re-offended, according to the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation.
Ultimately, the New Mexico Supreme Court halted Judge Love’s pilot program after just three people got ankle monitors—not because it was deemed overly intrusive and dystopian. It was because Judge Love had signed a contract with Goss for the units without consulting other judges in Bernalillo County’s 2nd Judicial District. The other judges argued Love’s contract with Goss had violated the state’s Public Purchasing Act, and the state Supreme Court agreed.
“In my opinion, it was a successful field test,” Love was quoted as saying years later. “There were bugs and gremlins and glitches in the system and the equipment. However, it was like the Wright brothers getting off the ground.”
That didn’t stop the judge idea from spreading throughout the country. At least a dozen companies sprung up between 1983 and 1988 in the U.S. offering different versions of electronic monitoring for prisoners. About 20 states and counties in 14 states experimented with the technology in the 1980s, slowly pushing the concept into the mainstream, according to a report for Congress in 1988.
Goss would go on to quit his job at Honeywell, where he first pitched his version of Judge Love’s idea but was turned down, and set out to work on the Goss-Link full time. With a $10,000 loan from a bank, he started a company called NIMCOS, National Incarceration Monitoring and Control Services, bringing on a man named James Guttmann to help build the device.
The Goss-Link first hit the market in 1983, and one of the first municipalities Goss sold to after ginning up the idea with Love was Lake County, Illionis, which ordered 15 units that year. Not only did Goss commercialize the ankle monitor, he came up with the idea of putting the cost of using it on the prisoner, which continues today.
As the Chicago Tribune explained in an editorial from August 1, 1983, the inventor pitched the new electronic monitoring device as a brilliant way to fix overcrowding in Illinois prisons:
Mike Goss, designer of the unit, said its cost of about $5 a day can be paid from the offender’s work earnings, as part of a fine imposed at sentencing.
Today, people on bail in the U.S. often pay hundreds of dollars each month for the cost of their own electronic monitoring, according to ProPublica. Some jurisdictions can charge several thousands of dollars, like Ramsey County, Minnesota, where prisoners have to fork over $2,275 to participate in the release program, according to a recent study from George Washington Law School.
The October 13, 1985 issue of Time magazine even included an article titled “Spiderman’s Net: An Electronic Alternative to Prison” which briefly mentioned the superheroic origins of the ankle monitor, but also got into just how popular the device was already becoming. From Florida’s Palm Beach County to Kenton County, Kentucky, the article explained how people were being outfitted with ankle monitors if they were behind on child support or had been convicted of assault. In one horrifying example, the article described how the ankle monitors were being used on AIDS patients for fear of other prisoners contracting the disease.
From Time magazine:
The idea has even been used most recently to quarantine an AIDS victim. An accused prostitute, she has been equipped with one of the new devices and was awaiting arraignment last week in the custody of her mother. “We needed to get her out of jail because of real or imagined contagion,” says Florida Judge Edward Garrison, who has championed use of the technology in his state.
Judge Love wasn’t the first person to imagine ankle monitors as a way to keep tabs on Americans. Social scientists were experimenting with electronic monitors as early as the 1960s, though they weren’t used on prisoners yet in any practical way. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the idea gained traction, even before Spider-Man got his tracking device from the Kingpin.
In the January 1971 issue of IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, an engineer named Joseph Meyer at the National Security Agency floated the idea of using these devices. With a dry name like IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, though, you can guess that the idea didn’t reach Joe Blow American. But the idea did get some coverage outside of technical journals, like a brief article in the Monmouth Oracle, a small student newspaper in Illinois, was lefty fringe stuff warning that George Orwell’s novel 1984 was closer than people thought.
From the Oracle’s November 3, 1971 edition:
The transponders, proposed by Meyer, would be attached to “subscribers” as a condition of bail or parole. Each subscriber would be identified by a code transmitted several times a minute to a computer via a network of transceivers deployed around town like police callboxes.
The computer would record the subscriber’s location and compare it with his “normal schedule,” checking for any “territorial or curfew restrictions.” If the subscriber was out of line, the computer would instruct the transponder to “warn” the subscriber of his violation.
The article in IEEE included a graphic of how the tech would work.
In the end, neither Joseph Meyer or Michael Goss were the ones to get rich with the ankle monitor. Goss’s company ran out of money in 1984, and he wasn’t able to secure another loan to keep it afloat, instead selling to a larger electronics company. But he helped create an industry that grows larger with each passing year.
At least 131,000 people in the United States are wearing court-ordered ankle bracelets that monitor their movements on any given day, according to a 2015 study from the Pew Charitable Trust. It’s a big business, with private contractors raking in at least $823 million per year from the system in North America alone.
Today, the technology behind ankle monitors has become much more sophisticated. Electronic monitoring typically uses GPS rather than the antiquated landline phone system and can pinpoint precisely where the offender might be in the world, not just that they’re outside of the 150-feet radius of their home. A prison research organization estimates the number of people wearing ankle monitors in North America on any given day will grow to 282,000 by the year 2025.