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The Spread of Electronic Monitoring: No Quick Fix for Mass Incarceration

The Spread of Electronic Monitoring: No Quick Fix for Mass Incarceration

by James Kilgore

In a troubled criminal justice system desperately looking for alternatives to incarceration, electronic monitoring is trending. North Carolina has tripled the use of electronic monitors since 2011. California has placed 7,500 people on GPS ankle bracelets as part of a realignment program aimed to reduce prison populations. SuperCom, an Israeli-based Smart ID and electronic monitor producer, announced in early July 2014 that they were jumping full force into the U.S. market, predicting this will be a $6 billion-a-year global industry by 2018.

The praise singers of electronic monitoring are also re-surfacing. In late June 2014, high-profile blogger Dylan Matthews posted a story on Vox Media, headlined “Prisons are terrible and there’s finally a way to get rid of them.” He enthusiastically argued that the most “promising” alternative “fits on an ankle.” Joshua Earnest, press secretary for the Obama White House, even suggested ankle bracelets as a solution to getting the 52,000 unaccompanied immigrant children out of border detention centers and military bases in the U.S. Southwest.

The reasons behind this popular surge of electronic monitoring are obvious: Prisons and jails (along with immigrant detention facilities) are overflowing from decades of mass incarceration. State, local and even federal authorities are looking for budget-cutting quick fixes. In the era of the smart phone, smart watch and smart textiles, nothing reads solution like technology.

On the surface, electronic monitoring (EM) seems like a simple alternative. Authorities put a bracelet on their charges, place a box in their house which receives a signal from the leg monitor, and the parole, probation or ICE officer knows where the client is at all times. The advocates of the bracelet argue this is cheaper than prison, ensures public safety and allows the person on the monitor to go about their business. The problem is, like everything in criminal justice, electronic monitoring is not that simple.

To begin with, even if you buy into the concept of electronic monitoring, the technology has lots of glitches. The most famous example was the October 2010 information overload that hit BI Incorporated, the nation’s largest EM provider, cutting off data for 16,000 people on monitoring nationwide for 12 hours. Then there was the glitch in California in 2013 where hundreds of people with sex offense histories disappeared off the radar. Even more serious, though, are the false alarms. Journalist Mario Koran did an investigative report in Wisconsin in 2013 and found several instances where the devices had incorrectly reported that monitored people were not where they were supposed to be. In one case, a false report of parolee Aaron Hicks being out of his house resulted in a 51-day jail sentence.

The Monitored: Fewer Rights Than Prisoners

While the techno-geeks will likely address these glitches at some point, human rights questions and financial issues loom much larger. Surprisingly, those on electronic monitoring have fewer legal entitlements and rights than people in prison. While prisoners normally have entitlements such as the right to access legal materials along with daily quotas for caloric provision and exercise time, those on monitors have few, if any, such guarantees. The heart of the matter is that whether a person is on an ankle bracelet for parole, probation or pre-trial release, the default position in most cases is house arrest.

In legalese, this is deprivation of liberty by technological means. To leave home, a person on a monitor needs permission for “movement” from their supervising officer and that permission has to be programmed into their device. Moreover, parole or probation officers typically have the power to impose a “lockdown” – confining the person to their house 24 hours a day for any period without any judicial process. Furthermore, neither a decision to impose a lockdown nor to deny movement offers channels of appeal for the monitored person.

My survey of legislation in the 12 states with the largest numbers of people on GPS monitors for parole reveals virtually no legal rights or entitlements for those on a monitor. A sole exception is northwestern Ohio, where a 50-page policy documentguarantees a person two hours a week for grocery shopping and laundry, but warns that a request for such movement “will only be considered if no other person in the household can provide this service.” The document adds that the sole days of the year when the person may be permitted to attend family gatherings are Christmas and Thanksgiving for a maximum of two hours.

Interviews conducted by Truthout with people in four states who have been on monitors as a condition of parole or probation reveal that accessing movement remains an ongoing challenge. People complained of being unable to acquire permission to attend the funeral of a sibling, go to a job interview or visit a parent in the hospital. One interviewee in Illinois said, “There was literally a period of three straight months that I never left the house because of the hassle and bullshit of attempting to even get movement.” Jean-Pierre Shackelford, who spent nearly three years on a monitor in Ohio, finally joined a church because it was one of the few activities for which he could get permission to leave his house. In a personal interview, he referred to monitoring as “21st century slavery, electronic style.”

Richard Stapleton, who worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections for over three decades, including several years on electronic monitoring policy, concurred with these criticisms. In a telephone conversation, he emphasized that the person on the monitor remained totally at the “whim of their [parole] agent.” Rather than characterizing EM as an alternative, he referred to monitoring for people on parole as “another burdensome condition of extending ... incarceration.”

Who’s Saving Money?

In addition to the crucial rights questions, the economics of EM don’t add up: The monitors may save money for corrections departments and county sheriffs, but these costs frequently shift to the user or their family. A recent national survey of electronic monitoring programs by National Public Radio revealed that 49 states impose fees for monitoring ranging from $5 to $25 a day. Given the escalating rates of criminal justice debt, ankle bracelets run the risk of becoming yet another “alternative to incarceration” that ultimately leads people back behind bars for being poor.

The key corporate players in the electronic monitoring industry prompt further concern. BI, which controls about a third of the national market, is a totally-owned subsidiary of notorious private prison operator The GEO Group, whose pro-incarceration lobbying and abuse of prisoners have been the focus of Truthout articles in the past. BI’s contractual crown jewel is a five-year, $372 million pact to intensively supervise immigrants awaiting adjudication in asylum and deportation cases, including putting several thousand of them in ankle bracelets.

Joining BI as an EM market leader is private probation firm Sentinel Offender Services, the subject of a recent Human Rights Watch report that exposed the company’s unethical actions and illicit profiteering in southern states. Firms like The GEO Group and Sentinel are constantly looking for new clients, referred to as “net widening” in criminal justice circles. Perhaps BI already has its marketing eye fixed on those 52,000 immigrant children sitting in deportation limbo on our border.

People with Sex Offense Histories and Techno-Gentrification

However, nothing raises big picture alarm bells like the EM regimes imposed on people with sex offense convictions. At least 11 states have legislation that damns people with certain categories of sex offenses to lifetime GPS monitoring. This techno-life-without-parole usually comes with exclusion zones. If the wearer comes within a specified distance (typically 1,000 to 2,000 feet) of a place where children congregate (schools, day care centers, parks), their ankle bracelet will sound an alarm. Although there has been some backlash against such restrictions in Colorado, Kansas and a number of California cities, public sentiment against people with sex offenses remains vibrant.

The imposition of exclusion zones has implications beyond criminal justice. A recent report on criminalization of homelessness by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty revealed a sharp escalation of laws against public sleeping, loitering, lying down in public, camping and begging. These laws are blunt instruments. Location monitoring offers the possibility of linking GPS to massive databases of undesirables, a virtual no-fly list for gentrified spaces. Indeed, those with histories of mental illness, violence, substance abuse, incarceration, unemployment, sex work, crossing gender barriers or even receiving state benefits could easily be included in online registries.

Techno-racial profiling also lands on the possible agenda. Los Angeles has already applied electronic monitoring to people with histories of gang affiliation. With increasing numbers of people carrying GPS devices in their smart phones, developing urban population flow systems to keep the good people in and the bad people out becomes quite feasible. Each individual could end up with their own personalized techno-map of the city, indicating where they are and are not allowed.

While this may seem far-fetched, researchers at Deloitte University have taken it much further. In their 2013 scenario planning document, “Beyond the Bars,” Alan Holden and Kara Shuler sketched a futuristic criminal justice monitoring system with a smart watch at the center that could allow two-way communication. The device could connect the user to a central database and a case manager. According to the authors, this system would use “advanced risk modeling, geospatial analytics, smartphone technology, and principles from the study of human behavior to achieve superior outcomes.”

These outcomes would ultimately be a more comprehensive system of controlling not only people’s movement, but perhaps their biochemistry as well. In a New York Times article, technology critic Evgeny Morozov called the vision of “Beyond the Bars” “the kind of cutting-edge innovation that only management consultants and tech entrepreneurs would be excited about.” And perhaps private corrections executives who envision scoring the smart watch contracts.

British researcher Craig Patterson takes his critique of such techno-fixes to a higher level, arguing that the growth of EM has “been driven by a fascination with the potential of new technologies to deliver managerialist solutions to complex social problems and the broader processes of neoliberal globalization that have developed the markets in incarceration and social control.” In other words, the use of futuristic technology becomes just another enactment of structural racism, and another method of criminalizing and policing poverty – rather than addressing its social roots.

Techno-Corrections: Spreading Like a Virus?

Over a decade ago, criminologist Tony Fabelo warned the audience at a meeting of the National Institute of Justice about what he called “techno-corrections.” He maintained that techno-corrections had the potential to be useful, but added that “we must also anticipate the threats they pose to democracy ... the infrastructure for increased intrusiveness by the state and its abusive control of both offenders and law-abiding citizens.”

His final point was that “We need to start debating the ethical and legal questions that have to be answered if we are to understand how to prevent the state from using the techno-correctional establishment in ways inconsistent with constitutional or ethical standards.” Unfortunately, little of that debate has taken place. Don’t wait for the Bureau of Prisons or The GEO Group to kick it off. We may witness angst over the Snowden revelations or the spread of drones, but only a movement with a genuine alternative model for dealing with social problems stands a chance of derailing the techno-corrections train.


This article was first published by Truthout ( on July 30, 2014; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.


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