How electronic monitoring sets people on parole up to fail
In her column for the New York Times in November, Michelle Alexander looked at how reform efforts in recent years often offer the “digital prisons” of ankle bracelets and GPS monitoring as an alternative to “brick-and-mortar” jails. Alexander focused on bail reform efforts but spoke more generally about how e-carceration leaves people and entire communities “subject to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring and control.” [Michelle Alexander / New York Times]
On Feb. 22, the Illinois House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the electronic monitoring of people on mandatory supervised release. About 2,400 people in Illinois wear electronic monitoring devices, after they have been released upon completion of their prison sentences. Witnesses testified about how electronic monitoring, and the restrictions on movement that accompany it, make re-entry more challenging; the enormous power it gives to parole officers; and the high costs to the state, which relies on it despite little definitive evidence that electronic monitoring reduces the recidivism of people on parole. [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]
Electronic monitoring curtails people’s movement and intrudes in their lives in unjustifiable, even inhumane, ways. Nicole Davis testified about her uncle who was diagnosed with late-stage cancer not long after his release from prison. Because he was under electronic monitoring and often unable to get permission to leave home, he missed doctor’s appointments. He died after he had been home just two months. After he died, his family had to wait for the monitoring device to be removed from his body before he could be cremated. It was two months before it was removed. [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]
Research published by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2016 showed that more than 125,000 people nationwide were under electronic monitoring in 2015, up from 53,000 in 2005, an increase of nearly 140 percent. The increase was driven by a sharp rise in the use of GPS tracking devices—88,000 in 2015, compared to 2,900 a decade earlier. All 50 states and the District Columbia place people released pretrial, people on probation, and people on parole under electronic monitoring. The brief noted the lack of robust evidence supporting electronic monitoring as a way to reduce recidivism: “Although some research suggests that electronic monitoring can help reduce reoffending rates, the expanded use of these technologies has occurred largely in the absence of data demonstrating their effectiveness for various types of offenders at different stages of the criminal justice process.” [Pew Charitable Trusts]
A recent report by the Center for Media Justice calls for an end to the electronic monitoring of people under parole supervision. “Of all the conditions imposed on individuals on parole,” the authors write, “likely none is more intrusive, punitive and dehumanizing than electronic monitoring.” While their criticisms of electronic monitoring extend beyond the post-release context, “we believe that EM applied to individuals on parole presents some unique features which make this issue warrant immediate attention.” [Center for Media Justice] See also Last week, The Appeal looked at how in Cook County, Illinois, more than 2,700 people are under electronic monitoring pretrial.
The explosion in community corrections in recent decades—the mass supervision that has grown alongside, and feeds, mass incarceration—has seen people under supervision subject to an increasing number of restrictions. Large swathes of completely legal behavior—and in many cases, actions taken in the service of employment, or education, or care for oneself or one’s family—can still serve as the basis for returning someone to prison. Electronic monitoring, and the accompanying home confinement, are exemplars of the problem. [Center for Media Justice]
What is not broadly understand about electronic monitoring is that “virtually all electronic monitoring parole regimes come with a condition of house arrest.” [Center for Media Justice] In Illinois, people convicted of certain designated offenses are automatically placed under electronic monitoring upon release. For everyone else, the Prisoner Review Board makes a determination about whether they should be under electronic monitoring.
In order to leave home outside of the narrow window specified in the terms of electronic monitoring in Illinois, one needs explicit permission. Obtaining this permission, particularly on short notice, is extremely difficult. At last month’s hearing in Illinois, people on parole and employees with programs for the formerly incarcerated described spending hours trying to get through the “call centers” designated for this purpose. One re-entry advocate described working with a client who was taking a test for an alternative school. Because the test was taking longer than expected, he would return home outside the window of time he was allowed to be away. They were unable to get through the call center to get permission for him to return late. He was an hour and a half late and was arrested as a result. The Illinois Department Of Corrections representative said the department did not have information on how many people had been reincarcerated because of EM violations.
The researchers from the Center for Media Justice also contend that electronic monitoring of people on parole does not save state governments money. It only makes parole supervision more expensive, by adding the cost of EM technology and the personnel needed for the practice. In some states, these costs are passed on to people on parole. [Center for Media Justice]
Illinois has, according to James Kilgore of the Center for Media Justice, spent more than $49 million on the call centers alone since 2010. That is in addition to a $32.5 million contract over the last five years for the electronic monitoring devices. The devices are supplied by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison corporation the GEO Group, and the call centers are operated by a subsidiary of BI. [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]
Monica Cosby, an advocate for formerly incarcerated women, described being under electronic monitoring after her release from prison. She passed up an internship with a law office because she could only leave her home for a few hours a week. She spoke about the vast power EM confers on abusive partners or landlords who can threaten people with being kicked out—and then in violation of their conditions. Electronic monitoring, she said, “makes everywhere you are a satellite of the prison, and it puts everybody in proximity to you kind of in a prison, too.” [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]