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55 million South Africans have a unique perspective on the world, one that comes from having Nelson Mandela, a leader who oversaw one of the most intense, complex and emotional transitions in handing over power, a leader who earned the respect and affection of the entire world, having spent 27 years in prison.

What’s the lesson? One of these could be that not everyone who crosses the lines legally needs to be in prison, and there could and should be alternatives to either putting someone in prison, surrounded by violent criminals and forced to make cruel choices over and over, or be set free.

Part of the success of Starbucks is because it’s a “third space”, in addition to home or workplace. There should be a third alternative between total freedom and total absence of freedom. In the arms deals between the USSR and the US, the phrase was “trust but verify”. For over a thousand years, Arabs have had a more poetic way of saying this, “Trust in Allah, but tether your camel.”

Today we also need to trust people, unless they have given us reason not to fully them, but we can tether them with data, with information, and don’t need to tether them with walls, bars on windows, barbed wire, chains or handcuffs.

We can use intelligent tracking devices that provide GPS data and send messages to let the authorities know that agreements are being kept and that there is not mischief being made.

South Africa is home of one of the world’s leading providers of this technology, and the country should make the most of it.

Now is the time for South Africans to come up with new ways to do things, taking into account the possibilities offered by new technologies, and the problems we have learned from scientific research.

If we had to choose the single area that could be “most improved” and where South Africa could zoom up in international rankings the most of any area by which every nation could be compared, what would it be?

Incarceration is one answer I have gotten when I have asked this question in various ways.

South Africa ranked 11th in the world in total prisoner population, with 159,241 prisoners. However, there’s a big problem:

“South Africa’s 231 active correctional centres are overcrowded, with an official prison system capacity of 120,000 – giving an occupancy rate of 133%. In September 2015 it was reported that almost 4,200 prisoners had to be evacuated from the Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison outside Cape Town after two inmates died from rat-related diseases. This was reportedly due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions – including a lack of sanitary facilities.”

It’s cruel and unusual punishment, and terrible for South Africa’s international reputation, to have such overcrowding, and to have inmates given accidental death sentences from rat diseases. Rat diseases at one point killed a third of the population in Europe, so it’s in the interests of all the people of South Africa not to have prisoners in overcrowded and disease generating conditions.

There are several big problems with such mass incarceration. Trapping someone inside ugly buildings with only criminals and guards caused someone to be exposed to more ideas for crime, it accelerates the loss of brain matter (making someone less capable of learning something new, preferably a skill for legal work, and the public has to pay a significant expense ($60,000 per prisoner per year is not atypical in the US).

Here is a proposal: expand the use of intelligent monitors to allow significant numbers of people currently in prison to live, work, and cooperate with people other than convicted felons and prison guards, but within geographic boundaries and other limits by allowing the option to nonviolent offenders of wearing an ankle bracelet with a GPS tracker.

Ankle monitoring was invented at Harvard in the 1960s by a team led by twin brothers, R. Kirkland and Robert Gable (at the time, Schwitzgebel, which means “sweating”, appropriate because that’s what prisoners do when they first get an ankle monitor put on). The ankle monitor took off when a lifelong New Mexico resident, Judge Jack Love, read that the criminal boss of New York City, the Kingpin, used a wrist monitor on Spider-Man. Judge Love thought that if it was good enough for his hero, Spider-Man, then it was good enough for the criminals he was sentencing. He got a salesman, Michael T. Gross, to get some prototypes made, and Love used these to create the very first judicially sanctioned monitoring program.

Ankle monitors have caught on, but the technology has been crude, and the interfaces have not given the “gods-eye” view that law enforcement’s wants, to be able to keep track of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of free-ranging prisoners in a given city or area. So why advocate an approach that has been around for 34 years.

Because of the new technology, ankle monitors with GPS technology and interfaces are now more useful than ever. Cartrack is a leading global telematics solution provider and is a publicly traded company that tracks vehicles and assets across a multitude of industry verticals ranging from fleet, moving assets and individual stolen vehicle recovery. Cartrack has entered the market with a new and improved prisoner monitoring system. The interface is excellent and makes it very clear who is keeping the agreement to stay within certain areas, and who is not. The instant that a GPS tracked prisoner is outside of his bounding box (an area created on the computer screen with a mouse by clicking and dragging), a message will be sent to the monitored prisoner mobile phone, to Cartrack, and to the prisoner’s parole officer. A log of all the violations is kept and easily accessible to those with authorization.

This system is currently being used in what is arguably the most advanced city-state in the world, Singapore, as well as in South Africa. Singapore doesn’t want to waste space and doesn’t want to waste human potential, and sees the GPS trackers as the best way to make the painful but necessary tradeoffs to maintain social order. The Singapore trial has been so successful that Cartrack was invited by Interpol to demonstrate it to representatives of 80 nations that cooperate on law enforcement across borders.

Cartrack has a very unique position in South Africa because Cartrack has achieved an astonishing and audited 94% recovery rate for stolen vehicles. This company doesn’t just make technology products in South Africa, it enforces the laws of South Africa, and sends the message that crime does not pay, at least not the kind of crime that Cartrack seeks to prevent.

One possibility for South Africa is to take the least dangerous 39,241 out of 158,241 prisoners and put intelligent tracking devices on them, and allow them to be released but monitored in open society. This would allow the South African government to report that its prisons were no longer overcrowded, and thus less likely to offer punishment above and beyond the sentences, and less likely to generate diseases that could negatively impact public health. Given that over 40% of South Africans have compromised immune systems from HIV/AIDS, public health has to placed foremost.

I think that the first large group of prisoners who should have the option of wearing a GPS tracker in return during their sentence in return for being released from confinement are those incarcerated for cannabis possession.

They are in prison because of governments claim cannabis has “no medical value”. This is a false classification: there are many documented medical uses of cannabis. But don’t believe the tens of thousands of people who say they improved their health by using cannabis. The US government filed a patent for medical applications of cannabis and was awarded that patent. To get a patent, you have to apply and to submit a sworn statement that it is true and accurate, under penalty of perjury.

Thus, the US government swore under penalty of perjury that cannabis has beneficial medical effects, which means it should not be on Schedule 1 (as a drug with no medical benefits) and which means that all those people who are in prison for cannabis convictions deserve better treatment.

Maybe they are not angels. Let’s see. Let them put on GPS trackers in order to get out and give them the benefit of the doubt, and see whether they are going to be straight or not.

South Africa, if it wishes to make amends for the unjust imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, should take every opportunity to let non-violent prisoners, especially those with victimless crimes such as those who possessed cannabis, be freed from prison, while still being monitored. This is an experiment in freedom that is worthy of trying.

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