Voice of the Monitored

Keeping an eye on the monitors


August 2013

Labor Day: The Myth of Slave Labor Camps in U.S. Prisons

slavelabor2On this Labor Day weekend I am linking readers to a piece I wrote for Counterpunch entitled The Myth of Prison Slave Labor Camps in the U.S. 

Despite claims to the contrary, only a very small percentage of those in prison in the U.S. work under contract for transnational corporations. The vast majority are idle, given no consistent work, education, training or treatment.  This problem spills over onto regimes of parole where people receive little support in their quest for work and face broad-based discrimination against people with felony convictions- questions on job applications about criminal background, banning from many occupations (such as people who fight fires while in prison being banned from becoming fire fighters on the street) and simply confronting the stigma that most employers attach to people who have been incarcerated.

The electronic monitor is likely the worst condition of parole for seeking and maintaining employment.  Just wearing an ankle bracelet brings its own stigma, especially for jobs which require interaction with the public. But the tight regimes of house arrest often make it nearly impossible for those on an ankle bracelet to attend job interviews, to work overtime or flexible work schedules, to perform jobs like home cleaning services, door-to-door soliciting  or gardening where mobility is essential.

So on this Labor Day weekend, let us remember that the major labor problem with mass incarceration is not slave labor camps but the fact that millions of working class people have been marginalized from the workforce due to the deindustrialization of urban areas, the destruction of meaningful education and training institutions in our cities, compounded by aggressive, inappropriate, and racist police practices in their communities.  Instead of being channeled into meaningful,decent work, millions move along the school to prison pipeline into lives under the punitive control of the state. On Labor Day let us think about ways of keeping people out of prison, keeping them off of unnecessarily harsh regimes of parole (including electronic monitoring) and getting them back into the workforce in jobs that pay a living wage.  This makes much more sense than fighting for higher wages in prison slave labor camps that don’t exist.

“You just turned my family’s house into another cell”


Shawn Harris thumbnailShawn Harris spent a year on electronic monitoring as a condition of his parole in Michigan. Today he works for a re-entry program in Lansing, helping other people deal with transitioning to the streets after prison.  Many of the people he works with are on some form of monitoring, either GPS, which tracks your movements in real time, or the Radio Frequency (also known as the tether) which merely informs the authorities of whether you are at home or not.

I spoke with Shawn about his own experience of being on both GPS and the tether as well as some of the problems other people he knows have encountered with monitoring. (click on photo to hear first part of interview.)  Shawn was quick to point out that GPS and the tether are not only applied to people with sex offense histories. While a 2006 law made lifetime GPS mandatory for certain categories of sex offenses, he points out that more and more people on normal parole are having electronic monitoring added to their regime.  In off camera discussions, he noted that this is just how the system works, that it is based on the money gained through incarceration. He believes that monitoring increases the probability that people will end up back in prison. As he put it, the system runs non-stop “like a hamster wheel…it goes round and round and round and everybody’s gettin’ their money.”

I have posted here four excerpts from our extended interview.

In the first excerpt Shawn talks about how when you are put on GPS you feel like the Department of Corrections “just turned my family’s house into another cell.” He spoke about the difficulties many families have with a loved one who is stuck in the house all day.  They need “breathing room” as he puts it, but there is little to be found.

In the second video, he talks about trying to find work while wearing an ankle bracelet.  The first obstacle he notes is that many people have a difficult time getting permission to leave the house to go to a job interview or even for the actual work shift. Then many employers will turn you away when they see that ankle bracelet.  He advises women going for job interviews while on monitoring to wear anything but a dress.

In the third video, he talks about the financial burden of being on GPS or the tether.  Many people don’t realize that those on monitoring have to pay a daily fee that may run into the thousands over the course of a year.  While Shawn’s estimates varied a little during the interview, he estimated his total costs were up to $6,000 for his year on monitoring.  Others have reported paying about $13 a day for GPS which comes to about $4,745 for a year. Some systems also require a land line, which is an additional cost.  Regardless of the exact amounts, the costs are considerable for a cohort that is largely unemployed or working in low-paying, part-time jobs. Those who can’t pay, have to work it off through doing community service.

In the final video, Shawn responds to my question of what advice he would give to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) about how they should run their program of electronic monitoring. His answers may come as bit of a surprise to people, especially those in the MDOC itself.

This interview is part of my research project, Monitoring the Monitors.  One of the key goals of this project is to present the stories of those on electronic monitoring-how it effects their daily lives, the job chances, their relationships, their chances of transitioning to the streets.

Electronic Monitoring: “Another burdensome condition of extending their incarceration”

Richard Stapleton Reflects on Decades of  Working with Michigan’s Electronic Monitoring Program

map of michigan[Here I present the highlights of my July 2013 interview with Richard Stapleton. Mr. Stapleton worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for 34 years, retiring in 2011. He served as the MDOC’s Administrator for Legal Affairs and  was deeply involved in the state’s electronic monitoring program. He took  part in policy development and was a member of a legislative Task Force on monitoring in 2010. His comments give us a unique perspective on how electronic monitoring has become increasingly punitive and less frequently implemented as an “alternative to incarceration.”]

Michigan has one of the largest and most longstanding electronic monitoring (EM) programs in the country.  The MDOC began using monitoring in the mid-1980s. Since then the program has grown steadily. According to MDOC figures, there were 5,117 people in Michigan on electronic monitoring as of April 1, 2013. 79% of these were on parole.

 During our conversation, Stapleton highlighted the origins of monitoring as a vehicle targeted at “community status prisoners,” people who had not completed their sentence and were released into the community to do the rest of their time.  In those days, when they finished their sentence, they went off EM and transferred to normal parole without monitoring. Stapleton believes electronic monitoring can be effective in such circumstances.  He argues that it should serve primarily as an “alternative to incarceration.”  Compared to incarceration he says that “a year on the tether at home is great for the family, great for the community, great for the offender.”

Before GPS technology became available in the late 1990s, everyone was on Radio Frequency (RF). A radio frequency device does not track a person’s precise location but only reveals whether they are in the place designated as their base, typically their house.  In that era, Stapleton recalls that RF regimes were largely organized around a curfew which mandated that a person stay in the house during night time hours, from “something like 11 6 a.m.” The rest of the time, people were free to work, visit friends, or go shopping.

However, three important things happened to shift the parameters of electronic monitoring. First, the rise of GPS allowed not only real time tracking but also the ability to program “exclusion zones” into a person’s monitor.  With this feature, if the individual enters a prohibited zone, an alarm on their monitor will sound and their parole agent will be alerted. Second, according to Stapleton, around 2000 Michigan abandoned the idea of “community status” in favor of truth in sentencing. Under truth in sentencing  those who were incarcerated had to do all of their time in prison.  Serving  part of their time outside the walls was no longer possible. Third, in 2006 Michigan passed a law requiring lifetime monitoring for people with certain types of sex offenses.

These three factors, combined with an increased emphasis on national security, led to a major transformation in the operation of electronic monitoring. In the absence of community status, monitoring largely became a condition of parole.

Stapleton argues that this was a step backwards, that adding a monitor for people released from prison on parole acts as “another burdensome condition of extending their incarceration.”  He contends this shift led to a situation where Michigan has “lost track of what parole really was…that you have done your time.”  With the new regimes of EM he fears that the reality is “the more conditions you impose, the more violations you create.” He bemoans the situation that a “guy on parole has to call his parole agent to go and buy a pack of cigarettes.”  He also worries that a lack of clear cut rules and policies leaves those on parole with EM “at the whim of their agent.”

Stapleton mentioned a number of other concerns about present day EM.  He claimed the capacity of EM to prevent crime is exaggerated.  It doesn’t “keep you out of trouble” he says, but only becomes useful  “after the fact,” if police want “to prove the guy was in the area.”

In addition, Stapleton takes issue with comprehensive monitoring of people with sex offense histories, labeling the tethering of “every sex offender” a “waste of money” resulting from “legislative over-reaction.”  He suspects these laws were not simply an organic reaction to a crime problem. Rather he points out that service providers were involved in lobbying for changes to the laws¸ using hysteria over high profile sex crimes as an opportunity to expand their market.  While Michigan administers the EM program through state channels and its own Electronic Monitoring Center, BI Incorporated, the nation’s largest EM service provider, has garnered a major share of contracts with the state to provide the  technology.  BI is a fully-owned subsidiary of private corrections firm the GEO Group.

As for the future of monitoring, Stapleton maintains there is “room for expansion of the use” of EM “by putting it in the category of incarceration” and getting “around the guidelines.” He remains convinced that there “are lots of men trustworthy enough to be locked up out here” and EM is the ideal vehicle to make this happen. However, for the moment, the MDOC appears to have taken a different path.

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