Atlanta-area jails to track inmates with high-tech wristbands

Sheriffs hope to boost security, prevent deaths behind bars as critics cite privacy concerns

DeKalb County jailers are preparing to join their counterparts in Fulton and Cobb in tracking the whereabouts and health of their inmates with high-tech wristbands. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office is studying the same technology, which can monitor an inmate’s heart rate.

Jailers are eyeing the wristbands as they scramble to prevent more inmate deaths. Between 2009 and October of 2022, 182 people who were held in these four county jails died, including from suicide, drug overdoses and natural causes, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. Among them was Lashawn Thompson, a homeless and mentally ill man who was found dead in the psychiatric wing of the Fulton jail last year. His cause of death hasn’t been determined, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office has said.

Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat cited Thompson’s death while asking Fulton commissioners last month for $2.1 million in emergency funding for 1,000 wristbands and related expenses. His office contracted for the wristbands in 2021 and has already tested them.

“Our goal is to make sure that we create the safest and most secure environment possible,” Labat said during a recent tour of the Fulton jail.

Justin Hawkins, CEO of Alpharetta-based Talitrix, explains how his company's software will collect data from high-tech wristbands that will be worn by DeKalb and Fulton county jail inmates. Asked about privacy concerns, Hawkins said the information collected by the wristbands "absolutely will not be sold. Number two, the government owns the data. We do not own it." Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association doesn’t track which of the state’s roughly 140 county jails use wristbands. Bill Hallsworth, the association’s jail and court services director, predicted they could prove useful.

“Any tool that helps you keep up with the whereabouts of inmate is helpful,” he said.

Michele Deitch, who directs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, agreed the wristbands could be beneficial but said they cannot become “a replacement for well-trained staff.”

“Anything that might help save a life is worth investing in,” she said. “In short, the technology is a tool and a supplement, but not a cure for understaffing and not a reason to become less attentive to the needs of people in the jail’s custody.”

The DeKalb and Fulton jails are working with Alpharetta-based Talitrix, a technology company led by Justin Hawkins, a Kennesaw State University graduate and former head of the Forsyth County Republican Party who cofounded Compass Neuro, a medical cannabis oil company. The Cobb Sheriff’s Office announced last year it was trying out wristbands marketed by Alabama-based Black Creek Integrated Systems.

Privacy advocates sharply criticize jails’ use of electronic wristbands. Jake Wiener, counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said using them to collect health information from Georgia jail inmates — most of whom are awaiting trial — would be “dystopian.”

“It’s deeply inappropriate. And there is a serious risk that this information will be sold,” Wiener said. “The people who are in jail and are being subjected to surveillance here are the people who do not have the money to get out on bail. This is like targeted surveillance of the poorest, most marginalized people in society.”

Like Wiener, Fallon McClure, the Georgia ACLU’s deputy director of policy and advocacy, pointed to other options, including hiring more medical workers, improving inmates’ access to attorneys and releasing more detainees on bond.

“I understand they want to keep people safe, but we can do that in a way that doesn’t infringe on their privacy,” McClure said.

She asked whether the information collected by the wristbands could be used to prosecute inmates and whether they would be charged with damaging government property if they break them.

Asked what would happen if inmates damaged wristbands, Labat said, “No more than you breaking a phone, right? If we can prove you intentionally destroyed it, that’s one thing.” Information collected by the wristbands, Labat added, will be protected under federal health privacy laws and will not be sold.

Labat said the wristbands could also help keep his staff safe. He told Fulton commissioners about the April 7 attack on detention officer Brooklyn Unitas, who was distributing meals to inmates when one of them allegedly knocked her to the ground and bit off part of her ear.

Signals from the wristbands could help jailers train surveillance cameras on such attacks, Labat said, and deputies could be allowed to wear the wristbands as a way to help protect them from injuries.

Unitas, who also sustained a broken elbow in the alleged attack, endorsed the wristbands.

“It is probably one the best things the jail could do right now,” she said, “in order to keep inmates and staff safe.”