“People shouldn’t have to worry that DOC is creating a list of everybody that participates in protests protected by the First Amendment.”
Starting next year, the Massachusetts Department of Correction will set up mobile license plate readers at its jails and prisons that will capture information about visitors and potentially other cars at the facility.
The DOC says the cameras will prevent drugs and other materials from being smuggled into prisons. But prison reform and civil liberties advocates say the readers are unnecessary and invasive, likely to discourage visits, and will cause harm to increasingly isolated prisoners.
“This is an escalation of DOC’s desire to limit visits or make it as hard as possible for families to visit. License plate readers amount to criminalizing and intimidating people who just want to see their loved ones,” said Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing. “The legislature needs to be involved in this to regulate it or ban it immediately.”
Currently, no visits are allowed at the state’s 16 prisons because of the coronavirus pandemic. And when visitors are allowed, they must provide photo ID and personal history, including birth date and parents’ names, in an application kept on file by the department.
But included in $2.5 million in federal Homeland Security grants awarded to various law enforcement agencies this October is $71,853 for automatic license plate readers for the DOC, according to a notice of grant funding. The money will pay for two mobile cameras, two trailer mounting kits, two cellular routers and an onsite trailer, all of which can be moved to any DOC facility at any time.
A DOC spokesperson said the department would use the readers to prevent visitors from bringing illicit substances or escape material into the prisons and protect prisoners and staff. The DOC would also use the readers to give information to law enforcement about active warrants, stolen vehicles and Amber alerts, the spokesperson said.
The department has not written policies governing license plate reader use and information storage and sharing, but will not use the readers until it has done so, the spokesperson said. The spokesperson said the policies will balance security concerns with respect for an individual’s privacy.
Civil liberties advocates said they were concerned by DOC collecting and sharing license plate information.
“You have to sign in to visit someone, what information are they trying to obtain they don’t have access to?” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Crockford said the DOC needs to explain how long it will store data and how other organizations—from local police departments to federal agencies like ICE—will have access, and whether that access will be tracked.
“Police often make inferences based off information from license plate surveillance,” Crockford added. “Who knows what kind of inferences police are going to draw from the decision to visit someone who’s locked up? Assume someone is involved with a gang, label them as a gang member? That can be used as a pretext for criminal investigation when there’s no other evidence of criminal activity. It is wildly inappropriate for the government to make inferences or assumptions about people merely because their car visited a DOC lot.”
The readers set up at DOC properties could be used to gather additional information as well. During the pandemic, Families for Justice as Healing has held four rolling protests at MCI-Framingham with two other protests held concurrently at the Suffolk County House of Correction, and Crockford said readers could easily be used to gather information about protesters.
“This makes it trivial to keep records of everyone who attends those protests, that’s deeply troubling,” Crockford said. “People shouldn’t have to worry that DOC is creating a list of everybody that participates in protests protected by the First Amendment.”
The biggest potential consequence of license plate readers, Crockford and other advocates said, is how they would likely discourage visits and hurt prisoners’ chances of reintegrating into society.
“Hundreds of studies say the best thing for reintegration when prisoners come home is for them to have visitors. If you want to work on family connections, reconciliation, all of this undermines that,” said Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost Of Prisons Project. “License plate data is another reason why people would think twice over visiting somebody and the DOC should be doing everything they can to encourage visiting, not dissuade people from visiting.”
A person with a loved one in prison, who spoke anonymously because of fear of reprisal from DOC, said current visiting restrictions are already intimidating and “a knee on your neck at all times.” Policies that lead to even less visitation and more isolation means prisoners are less likely to successfully transition out of prison, and more likely to cause harm to themselves and others, they said.
“If DOC actually is about rehabilitation then we need to be fostering scientifically validated resilience. Family support and interpersonal relationships are where it’s at,” the family member said. “Anything that breaks down social structure and connections and isolates a person …. that is a disaster recipe for suicide, misery, violence.”
“People in prison are mothers, fathers, children, boyfriends and girlfriends. They’re members of the community [who people] should be able to see as freely as possible,” Hanora said. “Visits are essential to people’s well-being while incarcerated. Maintaining strong, healthy relationships on the outside helps them survive their time and be successful when they come home.”
Crockford agreed with Hanora that the Legislature needs to examine the DOC’s use of license plate readers.
“Other states have passed laws that limit how law enforcement stores and shares data. Legislators have introduced regulations but nothing has moved in multiple sessions. Every day the legislature doesn’t do anything about this problem is a day where numerous opportunities for various kinds of abuse can take place,” Crockford said.
Spending money on license plate readers instead of health measures, and as public opinion has questioned excessive force and surveillance, makes the use of license plate readers even more egregious, Hanora said.
“To roll out incredibly invasive technology that disproportionately surveils and invades the lives of people of color, especially when resources are tight and people are not provided proper PPE in correctional facilities … it’s outrageous in the middle of a pandemic,” Hanora said. “Even amid a social uprising the DOC is acquiring even more tech to expand their capacity to cause harm and surveil and control and intimidate. It’s incredibly disheartening, the public is saying ‘We want something different,’ what DOC is doing is more of the same and worse.”
Dan is a reporter who has covered Massachusetts for the Boston Herald and Gatehouse Media.