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Illinois Loosened Ankle-Monitor Restrictions, But Advocates Say It’s Too Soon To Celebrate

A Prisoner Review Board memo released in July requires a minimum of 12 hours of movement with ankle monitors, but some people say they’re still being given far less.

Photo of Isaac Young
Isaac YoungKira Lerner

When 53-year-old Isaac Young was released from an Illinois prison on May 31 after more than 25 years, he was eager to start his life over. He had already lined up a place to live and had plans to start job hunting while reconnecting with his Chicago community. 

Before he was released, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board considered his file and ordered him to spend 120 days on electronic monitoring. When he got home, his parole agent told him he could leave home for only six hours each weekday and less than that on Saturdays. Later, that was increased to eight when he started an HVAC training class.  

“It was like I was still behind a wall,” he told The Appeal. “I had movement, but it was limited movement.”

Young said he didn’t have time to go to job interviews and he constantly worried about whether he would make it home by 6 p.m. to check in for the night. He also missed family gatherings and church events on Sundays, when he wasn’t allowed movement at all. For four months, Young lived in this restricted manner until his ankle monitor was removed on Oct. 1. 

What Young didn’t realize was that starting on July 15, he should have been allowed far more movement outside his home. That day, in response to a series of state legislative hearings earlier in the year on electronic monitoring, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board (PRB) issued a memorandum that, among other things, altered the conditions of release. The reforms, effective immediately, included a rule that every person released on parole or mandatory supervised release with an ankle monitor have at least 12 hours of authorized movement each day. Any restrictions beyond that have to be approved by the PRB. 

But Young’s agent didn’t inform him of the change, he said. A spokesperson for the Parole Review Board said he couldn’t comment on a specific case.

Young said that had he been allowed 12 hours of movement, his experience on his ankle monitor wouldn’t have been as difficult. It would have been easier to find a job, he said, and it would have lessened his daily anxieties about missing check-in. 

James Kilgore, an expert on electronic monitoring who leads MediaJustice’s Challenging E-carceration project, said the change gave Illinois the most liberal electronic monitoring regulations for people on post-prison release anywhere in the country.

Yet they still require proper execution, he said. Both parole agents and people on electronic monitoring need to know the new regulations. “If implemented, this rule could make a huge difference for people on EM,” he told The Appeal, but it’s not clear that the Parole Review Board can enforce it. “Ultimately, the decisions about people’s movement get made by individual parole agents on the ground.”

The change addressed concerns that electronic monitoring was overly restrictive. During the state legislative hearings this year, lawmakers were confronted with the challenge, for instance, that medical issues pose for people with ankle monitors. Nicole Davis testified that her uncle was diagnosed with late-stage cancer while on electronic monitoring and missed necessary doctor’s appointments before he died because he was unable to get permission from his parole agent to leave his home.

“Those parole officers would not return my call, they had no sympathy for my uncle,” she told the Illinois House Judiciary Committee in February. The state Department of Corrections did not respond to questions on the case.

Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, commended the PRB for hearing out the concerns raised during the hearings and addressing some of them in its memo.

“I’m very happy to hear that they listened to those concerns,” Staudt said. “They did hear what our advocates were saying and what the people who told their stories were saying and provided a pretty major fix.”

“This is a major step forward for the program and if it gets implemented on the ground, it will reduce suffering,” she added. 

But community advocates and others who work with people on post-sentence electronic monitoring say compliance is spotty at best. Parole agents continue to restrict people like Young to fewer hours of movement, advocates said, and many individuals with ankle monitors are unaware of the new policy.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, told The Appeal that he has heard many complaints about denial of movement and that people his organization works with have not heard of the rule change. One of the reasons the memo seemingly isn’t being followed, he said, is confusion over who sets the rules on electronic monitoring.

“The PRB has authority over what conditions of parole they impose,” Mills said. “But parole agents work for the Department of Corrections.”

Jason Sweat, a spokesperson for the PRB, said the board sent the memo to the head of the Department of Corrections and expected the new directive to be communicated to parole agents. Because parole agents work for a separate state agency, he said the PRB has no way to force them to comply.

Representatives for the Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment. 

If the memo is implemented, Staudt said, it would be a step in the right direction. Although 12-hour movement doesn’t lessen the stigma around electronic monitoring or the privacy concerns it raises, the change begins to address some of the damage that ankle monitors have on people’s lives, she said.  

“This is the kind of big step that we should be looking for as EM programs try to improve,” she said. “We don’t want electronic monitoring to impose a substantial impediment to the things that people need to do in their lives—take care of their families, getting a job, getting enrolled in school. Having to specifically request movement for those types of things is just not workable.” 

Ultimately, Staudt and other advocates would like to see the use of ankle monitors reduced or ended in Illinois.

There’s little evidence they improve public safety, she said, and people on electronic monitoring often say it makes them feel like they are still incarcerated. 

Shawn Manuel, 46, spent six months with an ankle monitor and now gets health and other re-entry services from the Inner-City Muslim Action Network alongside Young. He described the feeling of being home but not being allowed to live his life. 

“It’s like a leash,” Manuel said. “It’s worse than a leash. Parole is a leash. Ankle monitors is like a dog house.”