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How Chicago’s Electronic Monitoring Programs Fail Women and Domestic Violence Survivors

Advocates say the Cook County Sheriff’s Department’s house-arrest policies trap women in unsafe situations—and often force mothers to choose between their safety or their children.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart stands at a lectern speaking outdoors.
Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. DartCook County Sheriff’s Office

This piece was published in partnership with the Chicago Reporter.

On an April night in Chicago, Alexis Mansfield, an attorney who regularly assists women with criminal justice involvement, received a phone call from a woman in distress. The caller had previously been incarcerated, but was now on house arrest as part of one of Cook County’s Electronic Monitoring Programs. But she was unable to reach her assigned monitoring agent to report she was having an emergency. So she called Mansfield, who had helped her with legal representation previously.

The woman told Mansfield her partner was physically attacking her and that she needed to leave her home. Fleeing, however, would violate the conditions of her confinement and potentially send her back to jail. But staying could cost her her life.

“She said, ‘I can either go to jail or I can wait for him to kill me,’” Mansfield said. “In that situation, at least she knew me, so that I could contact somebody higher up and get it fixed immediately for her to get to a shelter. But we still have situations where people can’t go to a domestic violence shelter without it being a violation, so we’re literally forcing people to stay in abusive situations.”

Mansfield is a specialist in Children and Family Issues at the Women’s Justice Institute, a Chicago nonprofit that aids current and formerly incarcerated women, and is a Senior Attorney at Ascend Justice, a legal advocacy organization. Many of her clients are women who have experienced abuse and are stuck in a criminal legal system that was not designed with their safety in mind. In a 2010 survey by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, 98 percent of women incarcerated in Illinois prisons said they’d experienced some form of abuse prior to incarceration. As of October 2023, Illinois prisons held more than 1,400 women. Advocates for those women say that the state’s legal system does not do nearly enough to take these issues into account.

The situation Mansfield’s client faced highlighted some of the factors that make Cook County’s multiple Electronic Monitoring Programs problematic: a combination of rigid regulatory laws and a lack of communication and accountability.

These problems are compounded for parents—and mothers in particular—because the conditions of monitoring are sometimes at odds with their responsibilities to keep their children safe. When Mansfield’s client was unable to reach her agent, she was forced to find someone she trusted to take her children out of the house while she remained inside.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Electronic Monitoring Program (EM) was created in 1989 to reduce the overcrowding of jails. Since its founding, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has monitored more than 300,000 people. In that time, unresponsive agents, inconsistent laws and policies, and faulty monitoring equipment have embroiled the program in controversy. While the number of women who are placed on monitoring represented just 5.8 percent of the total Cook County EM population as of November, the proportion of women in the criminal justice system has grown in recent decades across the country. (The county’s Office of the Chief Judge also operates separate home confinement programs that hold people on electronic monitoring as well. As of 2022, both agencies utilized the same technological contractor under a single agreement.)

As of November, roughly 1,800 people sat on house arrest as part of the sheriff office’s program. According to Alexa Van Brunt, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center Clinic, that number is likely to skyrocket now that the Illinois Supreme Court has allowed the recently passed SAFE-T Act, a state law that abolishes cash bail and overhauls other aspects of the state’s legal system, which went into effect in July.

“Anyone that judges would have kept on pretrial detention will be kept on electronic monitoring,” said Van Brunt, who said she believes the courts could use electronic monitoring as an alternative to detain people pretrial. “The new form of detention is going to be electronic monitoring.”

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) website hosts a long list of regulations for program participants. One rule states that, “Even if an emergency arises, you must notify the Sheriff’s Office prior to leaving your Approved Residence.” Another rule states that requests to leave a residence must be submitted 72 hours in advance to be considered. In May, the sheriff’s office tightened the definition of a “residence” by stating that hallways and other common areas in buildings are off-limits for those who rent apartments or live in condos.

Another policy on the website states that individuals placed on the monitoring program “must be in the Program for 30 days before you are able to request a relocation to a new Approved Residence.” Participants are also only allowed to relocate once while on the program.

Illinois’s newly enacted SAFE-T Act includes provisions to improve the lives of individuals on EM, including guaranteeing two weekly days to leave the house for basic activities including medical appointments, religious observance, shopping for goods or doing laundry.

Van Brunt said law enforcement and the courts have been resistant to following the new protocols.

“We have judges who say, ‘You’re on EM—you can’t leave the house at all.’” Van Brunt said. “But it’s not discretionary—judges don’t have the legal discretion to deny it.”

But in spite of the legal reforms on the judicial level resulting from the SAFE-T Act, other branches of the legal system can still interfere with peoples’ essential travel rights. Probation agents can deny requests for movement without providing an explanation. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has also vocally opposed provisions in the recently passed Pretrial Fairness Act–part of the omnibus SAFE-T Act– that guarantee individuals on EM two days of “free movement” per week.

In a response to a request for information regarding the Cook County EM Program, Sheriff’s Department’s Director of Communications Matt Walberg stated in an email, “It’s a common misconception that the Sheriff’s Office decides who is placed on the program. The reality is that the Sheriff’s Office has no control over those decisions. All decisions about bond and conditions of bond – including placement on EM – are made by the judiciary.”

But the Sheriff’s Department does have control over the denial of privileges to those on the program.

In order to abide by the essential movement requirements in the SAFE-T Act, the Sheriff’s department’s policies grant EM participants two days of travel—but they fall on weekdays, and during typical work hours. As a result, many of those who are employed while on EM are unable to use their allotted travel time.

According to Mansfield, women who are pregnant have received violations for adjusting ankle monitors to accommodate swollen ankles, and have been penalized for going to the hospital to give birth. Mansfield recalled a different client who was trapped with an abusive ex-partner.

“He held her where he was for a couple of hours and at one point he took a screwdriver and a hammer and he started chiseling off her monitoring band,” said Mansfield. “She escaped and got back to her parole site and was picked up the next morning, and they were going to charge her for damage to state property for it, as well as the violation.”

Luckily, Mansfield was able to secure an issue of protection for her client and convince the courts not to penalize her for what had happened.

“Not only would she have gotten a violation—she would have gotten a new charge.”

For individuals who are queer, trans or non-binary, finding adequate and safe housing options can be particularly difficult. “Due to various reasons, including their gender and sexual orientation, they may not have family who can or are willing to house them,” Polcano said. “Some of them are homeless.”

Advocates at the nonprofit Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) push for these individuals to be placed in housing that offers placement based on their identified gender as well as case management and support programming, but CCBF Director of Programs Gerald Polanco notes that EM policies leave few options.

“If they are on EM, we usually can’t house them in the housing site of choice, which might focus on queer populations,” Polanco said.

Policies that restrict housing options can also fracture families, leading to children being shuffled from household to household.

Polanco recalls recent instances of EM separating mothers from their children while detained on EM.

“In the last year or so, we have had at least two women who were unable to return home with their kids after their arrest,” Polanco said. As a result, the children were placed in temporary custody of other family members, “including individuals who were estranged from the child.”

EM is intended to keep people out of jails, but it’s no guarantee that they can stay at home. According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department EM Handbook, when an individual on EM is “delivered” to their residence, they are required to have a legal resident present at the residence who has a valid picture ID or driver’s license with the EM residence listed on it. Additionally, the handbook states, “They must also sign a consent form allowing you to reside at the residence.”

Celia Colón, founder of Giving Others Dreams, an organization that facilitates mental health workshops in the Cook County Jail, said that regulations restricting where women on EM are allowed to live can trap them in unsafe environments. Colón recalled an experience in June when she said she was forced to tell a woman that it was safer to return to jail than to stay in the home she’d gotten approved under the monitoring program.

“The only place she had to go was her boyfriend’s house,” Colón said. “Her boyfriend was an abuser but she figured he wouldn’t hurt her because she took a case for the boyfriend.”

The client hoped that because she had been arrested for a charge and didn’t incriminate her boyfriend that he wouldn’t hurt her, but shortly after she arrived, Colón said the boyfriend became violent and beat her, taking her phone so that she couldn’t call for help. Because the woman was fearful that she would be rearrested if she fled the house, she remained inside and contacted Colón once he fell asleep.

“She had to text from the bathroom, and he tried to break in and broke down the door,” Colón recalled, adding that she urged the woman to contact the Sheriff’s department.

“I had to hold her hand and convince her—the only safe way we could get her was having the Sheriff’s department come and get her and bring her back to the jail,” Colón said.

The woman spent two weeks in jail because she needed to be put on a “no place to stay” list in order to qualify for supportive housing. She also needed transportation to a safe residence.

Colón was able to create a rescue plan using her connections to the Sheriff’s department and A Safe Haven—an organization that offers transitional and supportive housing with special options for DV survivors. Had Colón not gotten involved, she believes the situation could have turned out much worse.

“The alternative would have been that she would’ve been harmed, beaten or raped, or she basically goes back to jail after escaping,” Colón said.

Women on EM who seek safe housing to escape domestic violence face additional barriers if they have children—especially adolescent and teenage boys, who are deemed a potential threat to the safety of spaces that are created for women and younger children who have experienced domestic violence.

Even if women who are released qualify for supportive housing in domestic abuse shelters, their children are not guaranteed a spot in these facilities and could be placed in separate facilities or foster homes—a possibility that could force mothers to remain in unsafe homes to avoid being separated from their children.

The threat of separation can also lead women with criminal justice involvement to leave without anywhere to go, resulting in homelessness.

“I worked with a woman who has six kids and has been living in a car with them for about seven months,” Colón said.

Mothers on EM whose housing options enable them to live with their families are faced with a different burden—protecting the health and safety of their children without violating the terms of their detention.

Colón recalled working with a mother in 2021 who was released on EM whose son had an Autism spectrum disorder. The terms of her detention didn’t allow her to leave her home.

“Her son ran out into the street and she went after him to bring him back inside,” Colón said. “The police came because her device beeped, and they said she had violated her terms, and she explained what happened but she was taken back to jail.”

According to a 2022 Chicago Appleseed Fund review of Cook County’s EM program, interviewees reported housing issues including “eviction due to electronic monitoring affiliation,” “inflexibility for unhoused individuals,” and “increased friction between household members.”

An operations and program associate at CCBF, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the identities of their clients, believes that many of the conditions restricting movement also trap people in unsafe situations.

“EM puts undue stress on families and support systems, creating harmful conditions and situations that are much harder to de-escalate and only allow people access to very limited resources, which can lead to the further devolution of the situation,” said the aid worker, who has experience with mutual aid networks around Chicago.

Between 2019 and 2021, the CCBF employee said one of their clients—a mother who was put on EM—endured years of abuse while living at home. The woman was unable to work due to the conditions of EM that the judge set for her.

“This put her completely at the mercy of the person who was causing her harm and escalated the stress of the situation,” the aid worker said.. “On multiple occasions she told us she feared for her life.”

If she left her only housing option, the woman would have been forced to return to Cook County Jail, separating her from her children.

The CCBF worker said the added surveillance from law enforcement creates stress in households where people on EM live. The Sheriff’s department can pay unexpected visits at any time.

“I know many families have experienced them coming in the middle of the night,” the aid worker said. They added that their client chose to place her children in alternative housing to spare them from witnessing the ongoing abuse and stress that she endured. But this meant that she was unable to see her children, because her EM restrictions prevented her from leaving the house.

As the violence continued to escalate, the aid worker said their client remained silent, afraid to contact the police because she was on EM. She worried that the police wouldn’t believe her and that she might be brought back to jail.

The CCBF employee said they watched their client’s mental and physical health deteriorate as she remained trapped in a dangerous household.

“This system puts more power into law enforcement’s hands, but the system also creates a power imbalance between the person who owns or leases the home and the person on EM,” the worker said. “Even under the best circumstances, this creates stress and burdensome conditions that can lead to abuse and harm for all involved.”

Correction: This piece previously misstated which of Cook County’s electronic monitoring programs had jurisdiction over the first woman referenced in the story. We regret the error.