Last Friday, Puerto Rican nationalist leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios died after a shootout with FBI agents. In 1990, while awaiting trial for stealing millions from an armored-truck company, Ojeda snipped off his electronic monitoring bracelet and went on the lam. How easy is it to cut off one of those bracelets?
All you need is a pair of scissors. Electronic monitoring bracelets aren’t designed to stay on at all costs. A device that can’t be removed without special tools would pose a serious health risk to its wearer. A bracelet might get caught in heavy machinery, for example, or paramedics might need to remove it to provide emergency medical care. Most of the monitoring bracelets on the market can be easily cut in two, or even ripped off if enough pressure is applied. The SCRAM bracelet—that’s Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring System—comes with a labeled line that tells you where to cut in case of emergency.
If you slice through your bracelet, you’ll probably set off an alarm. A radio transmitter embedded in the bracelet is programmed to send a distress signal as soon as it’s tampered with. Bracelet manufacturers won’t discuss the specifics of tamper-proofing, but many pieces of monitoring jewelry use a wire that runs the length of the band. Cutting the wire breaks a circuit and sends an alert to the authorities. Some bracelets also use internal light sensors to catch anyone who manages to pry open the transmitter’s housing.
Anyone can cut off a bracelet and go into hiding, but it’s very difficult to take one off and put it back on later. Parole officers or other supervisors are supposed to examine the bracelets on a regular basis. If they see any signs of tampering—like cut marks or twisted plastic—the offender is considered to have violated the terms of the monitoring program. The fact that most bracelets are worn on the ankle makes them very difficult to remove intact. (Someone wearing a device on his wrist might be able to slide it over a greased-up hand.)
When a criminal has served his time, removing the bracelet is as simple as cutting it off. Just before Martha Stewart was allowed to remove her monitoring bracelet, New York’s chief federal probation officer said that former prisoners were allowed to chop off their anklets at 12:01 a.m. on the day of their release. The actor Robert Blake wasted no time in removing a monitoring bracelet at the close of his murder trial. He asked the crowd outside the courthouse for a cutting implement moments after the verdict.
Explainer thanks Steve Chapin of Pro Tech, Joe Russo of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, and Tom Wharton of iSECUREtrac.