Yesterday activists from WISDOM, a statewide social justice coalition which targets the criminal justice system, staged a protest about the severe restrictions for people on parole in the state, resulting in an enormous number of people being returned to prison for petty violations of their parole conditions. They also targeted false alarms and ultra-strict regulations in Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring program as one of the issues contributing to a high recidivism rate in the state. In addition to the challenges in the parole system, Wisconsin has the highest per capita incarceration rate of African Americans of any state. Read the story about the WISDOM action here.
Technology in corrections is trending. So is the use of electronic monitoring, especially with exclusion zones-areas where people are programmed not to go. In this piece I wrote for Truthout I explore some of the implications of “techno-corrections,” particularly their potential to segregate urban areas, keeping the “good people” in and the “bad people” out. Since large percentages of the population now carry GPS with them at all times, linking that to urban planning and “virtual gentrification” is one possible step for the future.
Link to my story here.
The New York Times has published a story about how ICE is dealing with the 52,000 immigrant children on US borders: electronic monitoring. They have begun to release some people onto monitoring programs. As, Carmen Garcia, a woman from El Salvador stated when they put an ankle bracelet on her: “Why are you putting this on? We’re not assassins. We’re not thieves. We’ve come to save our lives.”
The use of monitors is not a solution to the crisis of refugees on the Southwest border of the US. This is a political crisis that requires a political, not technological solution. As a 2012 report from the Rutgers Law School concluded: putting immigrants on monitors is the equivalent of detention. It is not an alternative. Such moves are being driven by the profit motives of the major private corrections companies like The GEO Group who are heavily invested in monitoring of immigrants. The GEO Group, through its wholly-owned subsidiary, BI Incorporated has some 7,000 immigrants awaiting adjudication on monitors right now. The 52,000 on the border currently are simply a new niche market opportunity for these private companies. Immigration policy should not be dictated by the profit interests of companies like the GEO Group who are invested in both private detention centers and electronic monitoring. No matter what punitive solution emerges, the GEO Group makes money. Yet another reason why a political solution to a refugee crisis is the answer, not treating these 52,000 like criminals.
To read the New York Time story click here.
To read the Rutgers Law School report, click here.
Steven Yoder has written a wonderful piece which describes how people in various communities are fighting back against the use of exclusion zones, especially as a condition of electronic monitoring. Exclusion zones most frequently are used against people with sex offense convictions. The rules for exclusion zones typically ban certain groups of people from coming within a certain distance of places where children are likely to congregate-like schools, parks, and churches. The state of Florida set exclusion zones as all areas within 2500 feet of any of those targeted places. This effectively left people with sex offenses with nowhere they could legally live. Activities like traveling on a bus or commuting to work became a nightmare as they inevitably involved entering exclusion zones. For people on a monitor, the device sounds an alarm if the person on the bracelet enters an exclusion zone. Certain California cities have also applied exclusion zones to people with gang histories.
Exclusion zones have at least three serious problems. First, they are a definite violation of the rights of those whom they target. Rather than being an effective method to prevent crime, they are simply a form of virtual incarceration creating the equivalent of a modern day cohort of lepers-people beyond redemption who are permanently ostracized. This has nothing to do with justice or crime prevention. It is just ongoing punishment. Second, exclusion zones set a dangerous precedent. So far they have been applied mainly to people with sex offense or gang histories. But who will be the next to be pulled into the net? Those with mental health issues? substance abuse histories? People with a history of school expulsion? the undocumented? those with any kind of criminal background at all? Exclusion zones, especially as GPS technology becomes more sophisticated and common, can re-shape our cities, keeping certain people out of the areas where the “good” people live, work and play. We need to find a way for more and more people to live together in peace and some kind of prosperity, not look for new technological methods to exclude the poor and powerless.
To read Steven Yoder’s article click here.
Last week the cutting edge of criminal justice technology shifted to Gage County, Nebraska. Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson, who presides over the county’s 30- bed jail, announced that Gage would be the site for the world pilot of a suicide detection device called AliveLock. The system consists of a smart bracelet called a RiskWatch, connected to a forefinger shield much like those used to measure blood oxygen. The RiskWatch will measure various vital signs and trigger an alarm through a computer if the technology indicates the individual is in danger of committing suicide. Despite its small population, Gage County Jail has had two suicides in the past year.
The inventor of AliveLock, Melanie Bailey, used to work under Gustafson as a corrections officer at Gage County. She is also co-founder of Pacific Place Enterprises, the Lincoln-based firm that is marketing the device. Bailey intended that the device help “county jails find ways to safely house” people with mental illness. She indicated AliveLock could be especially effective in old style jails with bars and numerous other points where individuals could potentially hang themselves. In a telephone interview, Gustafson said he thought the RiskWatch “could really help the correction field across the country.” He also predicted it would make Bailey a “rich woman” one day.
AliveLock represents the latest advance in a rising trend toward technologies of carceral control. The search continues for a techno-corrections miracle to reverse the disastrous consequences of more than three decades of mass incarceration. In a troubled criminal justice sector increasingly dominated by the discourse of evidence-based and research-based solutions, technology offers a simplistic but ultimately ineffective counter to prison abolitionists and advocates of Justice Reinvestment who insist that mass incarceration is grounded in a racialized criminalization of the poor.
The advent of AliveLock also reflects the enormous battle carceral facilities have with the growing number of mentally people in custody. According to a 2014 report by national advocacy group TAC, in 2012 jails and prison housed over 350,000 people with serious mental illness, more than ten times the number residing the nation’s rapidly disappearing mental health institutions. Moreover, suicides have become almost commonplace, as the recent exposure of suicides in Riker’s Island in New York demonstrates. Across the country, sheriffs and corrections officials are begging for more funding to add mental health pods onto their existing facilities. Even officials at San Quentin forwarded plans to add a psychiatric hospital to the prison’s Death Row. Attempts to complement existing prisons and jails with mental health facilities are seen by opponents as a vehicle for garnering continued funding for corrections in a climate where the time worn mantras of public safety and “tough on crime” have lost their public appeal. Though the producers have not yet made the price of AliveLock public, clearly it is a cheaper option than building new mental health beds.
(click here to view Monica Jahner interview) Monica Jahner spent nearly three decades in prison. Since she gained her freedom six years ago, she’s worked night and day at Northwest Initiative, a Lansing, Michigan- based program that provides reentry services for people on parole from state prison as well as individuals facing cases in the local courts. In the course of her work she’s encountered dozens of people on electronic monitoring regimes. She has an abundance of stories of the ways in which the monitor places unreasonable obstacles in front of people trying to do the right thing. Perhaps her most incredible example is the person on a monitor whose house burnt down, thereby cutting off the signal from his box to the reporting center. When he showed up the next day at the police station to report his change of address, the authorities took him off to jail because the rules of his electronic monitoring program didn’t permit him to be outside of his house at that time.
While not all her clients face such inappropriate responses, she emphasizes that the hurdles individuals confront to get employment or participate in family activities grind people down. “They have to jump through a million hoops,” she says recalling one individual who was called for a job interview on short notice on a Sunday. The supervisor for his monitoring program wasn’t available on Sundays. Since, as with most people on monitors, he wasn’t able to leave his house without permission, he had to make the difficult choice: break the rules and run the risk of being locked up or foregoing the all too rare opportunity for a person with a felony conviction to get a job interview. He ended up going to the job interview and luckily only got a tongue-lashing rather for breaking the rules. She recounts the story of another person on a monitor wanted to get a job cutting lawns. The monitoring requirements meant that he had to get clearance from his parole officer to visit every address where he would be cutting grass. That could mean 30 or 40 houses in a week, an almost insurmountable paperwork load for both the person on the monitor and the employer. Such requirements, along with the typical parole conditions that a person’s place of employment can be searched at any time without a warrant, make even the most sympathetic employers hesitant to deal with people on an ankle bracelet.
Most people on monitoring also have a curfew which stipulates they must be back in their house every day by 2 p.m. This makes it difficult to be involved in family or community activities. Monica questions the use of the curfew. “Are we making the streets any safer by saying you can’t go out with your family?” she asks, “Staying out until 8:30 shouldn’t be a problem.”
She attributes the excessive controls that often come with monitoring to a “fear mongering” which is fueled by popular “attitudes toward felons.” She notes that even some pastors have succumbed to this fear since a person’s monitor may sound an alarm in the middle of a church service, prompting nervous responses among the congregation.
This same fear has also spilled over into programs she runs. She once set up a lunch program for children but many people kept their kids away because people with felony convictions were serving meals. Monica said people in her reentry program were tired of hearing that “kids can’t come into our sight,” even when they don’t have any criminal history involving children.
She has even found that some people become so despondent under the restrictions of the monitor that they prefer to just give up and be returned to custody. Some people find it “easier sitting in a jail cell,” she says, especially when they “can’t keep a job because the thing is going off all day.” She told the story of one person with a sex offense history who spent thirty years behind bars. In a moment of despair he told her “it’s either gonna be suicide or I go back to prison. Nobody wants to give me the chance to change.” The authorities not only had him on a monitor with a strict curfew but he was not allowed to have a computer and was forced to get permission to even have a conversation with a neighbor. One day he said he stopped at a house on his street where the owner was holding a yard sale. He looked at a few items and had a short conversation with the owner. The next day his parole officer phoned him and asked him why, according to the GPS records, he had spent eight minutes at an unapproved address. When he explained the details, the parole officer pressed him to make sure that he had revealed to the neighbor that he was a person with sex offense on parole with electronic monitoring.
Monica stresses that all of these situations are made worse by the lack of consistency in policy. “Every parole officer has a different set of rules,” she says, bemoaning the absence of clear cut guidelines or any consideration of how conditions for various individuals may be very different.
Ultimately Monica thinks that electronic monitoring needs a re-think. She suggests it would help if the system was centralized with one set of rules. She also believes that conditions must fit different peoples’ needs, that a one-size-fits-all approach is not working. As it stands, she says, it is “virtually impossible for people on GPS to try to cope with society.”
She also argues that the problems with electronic monitoring constitute a subset of a bigger issue with reentry in general. She highlights the lack of understanding of the realities of returning citizens on the part of many involved in reentry and supports the idea of programs run by people who have been through the prison system. As she puts it “people who have walked the walk, who understand.” Likely if people like Monica had more influence over the rules and regulations concerning electronic monitoring and parole in general, far fewer people would end up going back to prison.
On February 19, 2014, the European Union’s Committee of Ministers adopted a set of recommendations on electronic monitoring. These represent a major step forward in carving out specific rights for the monitored as well as in re-framing monitoring in a less punitive fashion. US jurisdictions have much to learn from this document. The crucial sections are pasted in below.
III. Basic principles
1. The use, as well as the types, duration and modalities of execution of electronic monitoring in the framework of the criminal justice shall be regulated by law.
2. Decisions to impose or revoke electronic monitoring shall be taken by the judiciary or allow for a judicial review.
3. Where electronic monitoring is used at the pre-trial phase special care needs to be taken not to net-widen its use.
4. The type and modalities of execution of electronic monitoring shall be proportionate in terms of duration and intrusiveness to the seriousness of the offence alleged or committed, shall take into account the individual circumstances of the suspect or offender and shall be regularly reviewed.
5. Electronic monitoring shall not be executed in a manner restricting the rights and freedoms of a suspect or an offender to a greater extent than provided for by the decision imposing it.
6. When imposing electronic monitoring and fixing its type, duration and modalities of execution account should be taken of its impact on the rights and interests of families and third parties in the place to which the suspect or offender is confined.
7. There shall be no discrimination in the imposition or execution of electronic monitoring on the grounds of gender, race, colour, nationality, language, religion, sexual orientation, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, association with a national minority or physical or mental condition.
8. Electronic monitoring may be used as a stand-alone measure in order to ensure supervision and reduce crime over the specific period of its execution. In order to seek longer term desistance from crime it should be combined with other professional interventions and supportive measures aimed at the social reintegration of offenders.
9. Where private sector organisations are involved in the implementation of decisions imposing electronic monitoring, the responsibility for the effective treatment of the persons concerned in conformity with the relevant international ethical and professional standards shall remain with public authorities.
10. Public authorities shall ensure that all relevant information regarding private sector involvement in the delivery of electronic monitoring is transparent and shall regulate the access to it by the public.
11. Where suspects and offenders are contributing to the costs for the use of electronic monitoring, the amount of their contribution shall be proportionate to their financial situation and shall be regulated by law.
12. The handling and shared availability and use of data collected in relation to the imposition and implementation of electronic monitoring by the relevant agencies shall be specifically regulated by law.
13. Staff responsible for the implementation of decisions related to electronic monitoring shall be sufficient in number and adequately and regularly trained to carry out their duties efficiently, professionally and in accordance with the highest ethical standards. Their training shall cover data protection issues.
14. There shall be regular government inspection and avenues for independent monitoring of the agencies responsible for the execution of electronic monitoring in a manner consistent with national law.
IV. Conditions of execution of electronic monitoring at the different stages of the criminal process
1. In order to ensure compliance, different measures can be implemented in accordance with national law. In particular, the suspect’s or offender’s consent and co-operation may be sought, or dissuasive sanctions may be established.
2. The modalities of execution and level of intrusiveness of electronic monitoring at the pre-trial stage shall be proportionate to the alleged offence and shall be based on the properly assessed risk of the person absconding, interfering with the course of justice, posing a serious threat to public order or committing a new crime.
3. National law shall regulate the manner in which time spent under electronic monitoring supervision at pre-trial stage may be deducted by the court when defining the overall duration of any final sanction or measure to be served.
4. Where there is a victim protection scheme using electronic monitoring to supervise the movements of a suspect or an offender, it is essential to obtain the victim’s prior consent and every effort shall be made to ensure that the victim understands the capacities and limitations of the technology.
5. In cases where electronic monitoring relates to exclusion from, or limitation to, specific zones, efforts shall be made to ensure that such conditions of execution are not so restrictive as to prevent a reasonable quality of everyday life in the community.
6. Where substance abuse needs to be monitored, consideration shall be given to the respective intrusiveness and therapeutic and educative potential of electronic and traditional approaches when deciding which approach is to be used.
7. Electronic monitoring confining offenders to a place of residence without the right to leave it should be avoided as far as possible in order to prevent the negative effects of isolation, in case the person lives alone, and to protect the rights of third parties who may reside at the same place.
8. In order to prepare offenders for release, and depending on the type of offence and offender management programme, electronic monitoring may be used to increase the number of individual cases of short-term prison leave that are granted, or to give offenders the possibility to work outside prison or be given a placement in an open prison.
9. Electronic monitoring may be used as an alternative execution of a prison sentence, in which case its duration shall be regulated by law.
10. Electronic monitoring may be used, if needed, in case of early release from prison. In such a case, its duration shall be proportionate to the remainder of the sentence to be served.
11. If electronic monitoring is used, if needed, after the prison sentence has been served, as a post-release measure, its duration and intrusiveness shall be carefully defined, in full consideration of its overall impact on former prisoners, their families and third parties.
I. Ethical issues
1. Age, disability and other relevant specific conditions or personal circumstances of each suspect or offender shall be taken into account in deciding whether and under what modalities of execution electronic monitoring may be imposed.
2. Under no circumstances may electronic monitoring equipment be used to cause intentional physical or mental harm or suffering to a suspect or an offender.
3. Rules regarding the use of electronic monitoring shall be periodically reviewed in order to take into account the technological developments in the area so as to avoid undue intrusiveness into the private and family life of suspects, offenders and other persons affected.
I. Data protection
1. Data collected in the course of the use of electronic monitoring shall be subject to specific regulations based on the relevant international standards regarding storage, use and sharing of data.
2. Particular attention shall be paid to regulating strictly the use and sharing of such data in the framework of criminal investigations and proceedings.
3. A system of effective sanctions shall be put in place in case of careless or intentional misuse or handling of such data.
4. Private agencies providing electronic monitoring equipment or responsible for supervising persons under electronic monitoring shall be subjected to the same rules and regulations regarding handling of the data in their possession.
1. All relevant rules of Recommendation Rec(92)16 on the European rules on community sanctions and measures, of Recommendation Rec(97)12 on staff concerned with the implementation of sanctions and measures, of RecommendationCM/Rec(2010)1 on the Council of Europe Probation Rules and of Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)5 on the European Code of Ethics for Prison Staff, which relate to staff, shall be applicable.
2. Staff shall be trained to communicate sensitively with suspects and offenders, to inform them in a manner and language they understand of the use of the technology, of its impact on their private and family lives and on the consequences of its misuse.
3. Staff shall be trained to deal with victims in cases where victim support schemes are used in the framework of electronic monitoring.
4. In establishing electronic monitoring systems, consideration shall be given to the respective merits of both human and automated responses to the data gathered by the monitoring centre, bearing in mind the advantages of each.
5. Staff entrusted with the imposition or execution of electronic monitoring shall be regularly updated and trained on the handling, use and impact of the equipment on the persons concerned.
6. Staff shall be trained to install and uninstall technology and provide technical assistance and support in order to ensure the efficient and accurate functioning of the equipment.
I. Work with the public, research and evaluation
1. The general public shall be informed of the ethical and technological aspects of the use of electronic monitoring, its effectiveness, its purpose and its value as a means of restricting the liberty of suspects or offenders. Awareness shall also be raised regarding the fact that electronic monitoring cannot replace professional human intervention and support for suspects and offenders.
2. Research and independent evaluation and monitoring shall be carried out in order to help national authorities take informed decisions regarding the ethical and professional aspects of the use of electronic monitoring in the criminal process.
The Los Angeles Times ran an article today about the large number of false alarms electronic monitoring devices are generating, inundating parole agents with more information than they can possibly process. As a result, the article concludes, some genuine alarms are going unheeded and people when people cut off bracelets to go and commit crimes. The article reiterates the typical slant on electronic monitoring-that it isn’t as comprehensive a control device as a prison cell and that it is not an absolute deterrent to crime. Like most writing on this topic the piece fails to address three other sets of problems: 1) that in the worse case scenarios many people end up back in prison or jail for being falsely reported out of their house or in a zone from which they are “excluded;” 2) that the absurd use of exclusion zones applied to many people on monitoring due to sex offense convictions is totally inappropriate and administratively impossible to manage; 3) that the real need is for electronic monitoring to be implemented with guidelines that define the rights of people on monitoring and embrace a philosophy of restorative justice not electronic punishment.
Check out the Los Angeles Times piece here.
Professor Mike Nellis, a leading researcher and policy expert on electronic monitoring, advises using electronic monitors instead of jail time for youth. He was making this recommendation to the Scottish government which is investigating monitoring in light of the multimillion dollar electronic monitoring scandal involving G4S, the world’s largest security company. G4S admitted to over billing the government some $38 million on monitoring contracts.
Nellis said Scotland should follow the example of Scandinavian countries like Denmark where the assumption is that no youth should be jailed for a sentence of less than six months but should be placed on a monitor or other community sentencing option.
As I read this, I thought of a story which came out on January 16th about a John Howard Association study of Warrenville ‘ youth facility for girls in Illinois. It costs the taxpayers $177,000 a year to keep one girl there. The downstate facility is a long way from home for most of the youth who come from Chicago. Not surprisingly, 63% of the girls are African American, despite Blacks being only 15% of the state’s total population. Surely Illinois youth justice authorities should be considering options like monitoring under a fair regime rather than locking these girls away hundreds of miles away from home.
Professor Nellis’ urging the Scottish government to follow the example of the Scandinavian countries is advice that US authorities could well heed as well. These countries have lower crime rates than the US and incarcerate at a tenth of the rate of the United States. The criminal justice system is no place to be following the policy of American exceptionalism.
To read the story about Professor Nellis, click here.
To read the Warrenville report, click here.