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Voice of the Monitored

Keeping an eye on the monitors

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ankle bracelet

Personal Reflections on Electronic Monitoring

Somewhgregs-bracelet-11.jpgere in the middle of a November night in 2009 I got a phone call from my then 95 year old mother. She said she had chest pains, had already phoned 911 and thought she was having a heart attack.  Since she only lived about a ten minute drive away, my first instinct was to jump in the car and rush to her side. Instead, I dialed the 800 number  the Illinois Department of Corrections had provided me for emergencies. Like thousands of people in the U.S., I was on an ankle bracelet as part of the conditions of my parole.  I couldn’t leave the house unless I had permission from my parole agent.  After listening several times to the IDOC’s recording of how important my call was to them, a woman picked up the phone. I told her my story. She told me I could only go if I had permission from my parole agent.  She said she would contact him and see what he had to say. Unless I’d committed a triple homicide or gotten caught with a truckload of heroin, my parole agent wasn’t going to be respond at three in the morning.  I had to decide: go to the hospital anyway, explain it to the agent in the morning and hope for the best or wait it out until six a.m. when I had permission to leave the house. I opted to wait the three hours. Fortunately it wasn’t a heart attack and she was sent home that afternoon. That same morning I phoned my parole agent and asked him if I could leave the house without permission should a similar situation arise in the future.  He said it was a “grey area.”  After six and a half years in prison, I knew that grey areas were places you don’t go.

After that night I began to ask a few more questions about electronic monitoring. For most people, it’s just something for the rich and famous who run afoul of the law. Martha Stewart was on an ankle bracelet, as were Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Charley Sheen. The other cohort that gets associated with ankle bracelets are people with sex offense registries. They love to put them on monitors.  Most people seem to have the idea that an ankle bracelet is just a little black box they attach to your leg and then it’s business as usual. Whenever I try to explain electronic monitors to people, they usually say “at least it’s better than being in jail.” Well, that’s true. I’d rather be on an ankle bracelet any day than in Menard or even the local county jail.  But that’s not the point.

Electronic monitoring is supposed to be an “alternative” to incarceration. Something very different, that lets people work, go to school or participate in family activities. In many instances, that’s true. But electronic monitoring can be something quite different, something far more draconian.

I’ve interviewed lots of people who’ve been on monitors.  A few have no complaints. Their parole agent lets them come and go as they please and the monitor doesn’t get in their way other than every once in awhile when someone sees that bump on their ankle and looks at them kinda funny.

Far more people have a lot of concerns about these monitors.  Shawn Harris who was on a monitor for a year in Michigan described being on parole with monitor as changing  “from a prison setting to a housing setting which is now your new cell.” Jean-Pierre Shackelford who spent nearly three years on a monitor in Ohio called it “ 21st century slavery, electronic  style.” Richard Stapelton, who worked for more than three decades in the Michigan Department of Corrections depicted monitoring people on  parole as   “another burdensome condition of extending their incarceration.”

Why do some people get so riled up about being on a monitor? First of all, house arrest is not always very pleasant.  You may be jammed into a one bedroom apartment with four or five family members. You become an imposition to them.  And usually authorities provide you with no clear cut guidelines about what you can and cannot do.  While monitoring supposedly gives you freedom to move, final authority rests with the supervisor and there are no avenues of appeal. So if you want to visit your child or enroll in a class, your parole agent can simply refuse and you have to accept it.  If you’ve never been on parole or probation, you need to know that not all parole and probation officers are nice people who are trying to look after you. Some are. Mine actually was quite reasonable.  But too many are what we call “haters.” They like to do whatever they can to make your life difficult –as we say “because they can.”

The second problem is that with modern GPS-linked ankle bracelets they know where you are at every moment.  This allows supervisors to place very strict rules on your movements. I know one man who was only allowed to shop in three stores: Meijer, Walgreen’s and the Dollar Store. If he went anywhere else he could be violated and sent back to prison. Another person I know once stopped for eight minutes to talk to someone on his street who was having a yard sale.  The next day he got a call from his parole agent asking him what he was doing at that house since it wasn’t on his list of approved addresses. The agent warned that repeating this transgression, that is attending an unauthorized yard sale for eight minutes,  could land him back in prison.

The third problem is the cost. Most people these days pay a daily fee to be on a monitor-anywhere from five to seventeen dollars. Such charges are okay if you are Martha Stewart, but if you are unemployed and just finished ten years in prison, three months of monitoring charges can sink you into a deep financial hole.

So does that mean we should stop using monitors in criminal justice?  Not just yet. But monitors should be administered in a way that gives the person on the bracelet the freedom they need to get their life together, not with a long laundry list of restrictions which set an individual up for going back to prison because the bus arrives five minutes late and they don’t get back home by the prescribed hour.  A person on monitoring should have rights to movement for necessary activities like seeking work and getting medical treatment and taking part in family activities. If those rights are denied, they should have an avenue of appeal.

Lastly, lose those daily charges for electronic monitoring.  Being on an ankle bracelet is part of what a criminal justice system is supposed to do, part of why we pay taxes.  If our taxes can’t cover the costs of criminal justice, then we should either arrest and punish fewer people or raise taxes. No one, either the parole people or private monitoring companies, should be sucking the last dollar out of poor peoples’ pockets  so they can pay the operating cost of an electronic monitor.

http://publici.ucimc.org/?p=50069

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

SHAWN HARRIS OF LANSING MI TALKS ABOUT BEING ON ELECTRONIC MONITORING

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.

Protection From Crime Does Not Equal Public Safety

greg's bracelet 1

FEAR CAMPAIGN ON ELECTRONIC MONITORING

Today ABC News ran a story about false alarms on electronic monitors worn by people on parole, probation, or on bail. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ap-impact-ankle-bracelet-alarms-unchecked-19795774#.UfUpGAvT6SI.email

They cite several instances when the supervising authorities failed to respond to alarms which resulted in people committing serious crimes. Clearly this issue needs addressing. But much more numerous and unmentioned are the times when technological failures result in people on the monitors wrongly getting hauled off to prison or jail, losing employment opportunities, missing out on chances to keep their life on track. The reference point on electronic monitoring in this story, as almost everywhere, is the idea of public safety.

In this case, what they actually mean is protection from crime,which is a small part of public safety-access to health care, education, employment being the bigger parts. Protection from crime must always be considered in the context of rights. This is why we have the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” Yet there is little discussion about the rights of people on parole or probation, especially those on ankle bracelets.

The emphasis on the technical failures of electronic monitoring which lead to crime heads us down a path of making monitoring simply more punitive rather than balancing freedom from crime with the rights of people on parole, probation, or bail. We don’t need to make electronic monitoring more like being incarcerated in your home.

The Bigger Picture

We need to see the bigger picture and not respond to headline media crimes with cries for harsher measures. The vast, vast majority of people on monitoring are quietly going about trying to keep their lives together. The policy makers and the media need to give them that chance, not look for headline stories which put all people on parole and probation in the same box.

Company Offers SWAT Team With Ankle Bracelets

According to the compaEM operational forcesny website entitled “Monitor Inmates” a firm  headed by Chey Rodriguez promises to add a new twist to electronic monitoring services- a Special Operations Team to arrest anyone who violates the conditions of their ankle bracelet regime.  The photo at right appears on their website, implying that these are their forces which allow them to bypass “local agencies.” The firm, which seems a bit evasive about actually providing their name on the website, also offers a technology that claims to not only monitor location but alcohol and drug consumption all in the same package.  They boast of successful operations in Spain and Peru and are ecstatic that San Bernadino County in California has added ankle bracelets to the probation regime of alleged gang members. The firm’s Executive Offices are in Miami, FL but they list satellites in Denmark, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados as well as a production site in Cleveland with a post office box address.  To have a look at their special operations promises visit: http://www.monitorinmates.net/services/electronic-bracelet-violation-special-task-force/

FAU President Resigns

GEO stadium picIn what is a first for those campaigning against private corrections companies, the President of Florida Atlantic University (FAU), Mary Jane Saunders has resigned. While she was embroiled in a number of controversies, the major issue for Saunders was the GEO Group stadium fiasco. Under Saunders’ watch FAU granted naming rights for its football stadium to the GEO Group, the country’s second largest private prison owner and LARGEST SUPPLIER OF ELECTRONIC MONITORING TECHNOLOGY AND SUPPORT. The naming rights came as a result of a six million dollar donation to FAU by GEO. However, a campaign initiated by students of the college which eventually drew national support, forced GEO to withdraw its name and funding. So a venture that George Zoley, the CEO of GEO, had once called the “finest example of community outreach our company has activated in its history,” backfired and now cost Saunders her job.  If only the scandals in GEO-run prisons and its excessive advocacy work to promote expanded use of electronic monitoring drew such instant results as the football stadium debacle.

Ridiculous Legal Wrangles Block Electronic Monitoring In Chicago

Today the Chgregs-bracelet-11.jpgicago Tribune reports that a spat between Sheriff Thomas Dart and Chief Judge Timothy Evans has brought the release of pre-trial people on electronic monitoring to a virtual standstill. In recent years, Cook County, where Chicago is located, has run the largest pre-trial monitoring in the country-claiming that over 250,000 people have been put on monitors by local authorities.  From July 1, 2012 to November 13, 2012, the county sent about 25 people per day back onto the streets while their cases were processed. Then somewhere along the way Judge Evans changed the language of his decisions from “orders” to “recommendations” and electronic monitoring ground to a halt. The situation came to a public head in an epic TV debate between Dart and Evans. The Judge argued he was giving some discretion to the Sheriff about who was to be monitored. The Sheriff responded by saying he needed an order, not a recommendation. And so it goes.  Who is going to step in and halt this battle of egos which keeps people locked up when they should be working and with their families. Who is going to intervene and stop the already over-crowded Cook County jail from teeming with even more people who often end  up being shipped out to other jurisdictions.

One of the most effective uses of electronic monitoring is for pre-trial people. Though the rules and regulations don’t always function in a rehabilitative way, the solution is not to halt the program while the giant egos at the top battle it out. Rather let the authorities come to their senses and continue with monitoring and keep yet to be convicted people out of the horrific confines of Cook County jail.

5,000 People With Sex Offenses Cut Off Ankle Bracelets in CA: Why?

A recent story in California reports that some 5,000 people with sex offenses have cut off their leg monitors. While law enforcement agencies claim to have rounded up 92% of these people, most within a few days, the situation will no doubt prompt lots of reflection on how to “tighten up” on electronic monitoring.  Already one legislator is preparing a bill to send those who cut off their devices straight back to the overcrowded state prison system. This measure comes largely in response to a case where someone on parole with a device did allegedly commit a horrendous murder-rape.  While clearly there is a need to prevent such crimes, all too often in the past one serious case such as the famous Willie Horton incident in the 1980s has triggered massive backlash and irrational punitive overreaction.

Tightening up the rules and regulations for electronic monitoring is not the answer. What is required is a serious investigation into the ways in which policies like “exclusion zones” render it virtually impossible for people with sex offense convictions to legally carry out the simple daily tasks of survival-from shopping, to traveling on a bus, to finding a place to live. While people with sex offenses generate little public sympathy, as the test cases for the use of electronic monitoring, the rules and regulations which apply to them are likely to become the model for others. For those interested in a detailed legal analysis of this issue, I recommend an article in the Washington Law Review by Shelly Ross Saxer.  She argues that exclusion zones need to be reviewed in light of the need to preserve the basic rights of people with sex offense convictions. Her conclusion is that the present policies amount to banishment, virtually driving people underground where they often become a social and economic burden on already overstretched low income communities. If the Californian authorities intend to expand the use of electronic monitoring, as it appears they are, they should do a thorough investigation of why 5,000 cut off their leg monitors rather than simply assume they have taken this action so they can go on some kind of criminal rampage.  People on electronic monitoring need a regime of legal rights as full citizens and residents of communities, not a hybrid version of second class citizen status imported from the previous eras of legalized inequality.

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