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Voice of the Monitored

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Reflections on My Visit to the Confederation of European Probation, December 2014

I had the extreme pleasure of being invited to the semi-annual meeting of the European Confederation of Probation(CEP) in Frankfurt, Germany in early December. I spent three days with over 200 people from more than 30 countries who have a deep interest in electronic monitoring. While the majority of them worked in probation, there were also judges, police, researchers, government officials and entrepreneurs. In addition, I took part in the program, making a presentation about the state of electronic monitoring in the US while describing some of my own experiences on the monitor as well as the material I have gathered from interviewing other people. A copy of my presentation is posted at the CEP website.
Even though no country in Europe uses electronic monitors as frequently as the US on a per capita basis, the complexity of debate among the participants in the conference far exceeded anything I have encountered on this side of the Atlantic. Three things stood out for me.
Monitors and Human Rights-The Europeans Care
The first was that for nearly everyone there, the monitor should not be imposed without a careful consideration of the human rights implications of putting a tracking device on a person. A complex debate has taken place, particularly in Germany, over various aspects of this question. Whereas most discussion in the US focuses on mechanisms of control or recidivism impact, the Europeans recognize that monitoring someone’s location and activities is both punitive and a distinct invasion of privacy which needs to be thought about carefully before implementation. Given the German experience of both the Third Reich and the East German Stasi, it is not surprising that such matters would gain considerable attention there. In fact, at the Federal level, the German government has discouraged the use of monitors. Only one state, Hesse, (where the conference took place) has implemented monitoring and they only use it on 68 people. The human rights questions largely revolve around access to data. The Germans are concerned that data collected through monitoring can be used in criminal investigations which actually don’t meet the notion of probable cause. So, for example, in the implementation of a GPS location monitoring system local judge Silke Eilzer summarized the current wisdom in Germany: that police should not be able to examine the location of everyone on a monitor in a specific town when a crime was committed. Rather, before electronic monitoring data could be accessed at all, there would need to be probable cause that a particular person on a monitor had a link to the crime and then only that person’s data could be introduced into an investigation. Eilzer also shared concerns about how long data from EM should be kept. At present, German authorities are required to delete data after two months, a startlingly short period to most people in the audience.
Dominic Lehner, a prominent Swiss lawyer with a range of experience inside and outside the criminal justice system and a major driver of EM policy in the EU, raised an issue in response to a device that one company had produced that tracked not only location, but movement and temperature. So, for example, the device could report whether the person was lying down or standing up, if they were in a sauna or a walk-in cooler, if they were jogging in place or standing. Lehner was especially bothered by the potential for this device to record a person’s activities in the bedroom-which for him was unacceptable. Concerns for what I call the “rights of the monitored” rarely find expression in US discussions about electronic monitoring. The perspectives of Eizler and Lehner were incredibly refreshing.
Probation Officers Are Social Workers, Not Cops!!!
Second, spokespeople from every country put forward EM as a tool, not as a solution. There was no attraction to EM as a quick-fix. From the UK, where it is used the most often and where the incarceration rate is higher than most of Western Europe, a person on a monitor would always be assigned a probation officer, which in European terms means social worker. (In fact in some countries, a person has to be a trained social worker to be a probation officer.) While rehabilitation departed from most jurisdictions in the US some two decades ago, it remains at the center of the criminal justice debate and practice in Europe.
In this vein, during my presentation I noted that if I were called upon to speak to a gathering this size of probation officers in the U.S., I would be a little fearful, as many of them have assumed policing rather than supporting roles. Jaws dropped open when I told them that parole officers in some states carry guns and that they (and probation officers) may do unannounced searches of houses looking for drugs and other contraband. This CEP gathering was a collection of earnest souls, focused on getting their clients onto a positive life track, not wanna-be CSI investigators trying to catch their charges out of bounds. What a delightful change.
Third, the relationship to the technology was different. While Radio Frequency (RF) devices still exist in many places in the US, most people regard them as the EM equivalent of a flip phone-second rate technology from a bygone era. But in Europe, the limited capacity of RF (it can only tell whether a person is at home but cannot pinpoint their location once they leave the house), is seen as an advantage for many people characterized as “low risk.” The regimes of “curfew” typically allow people out of the house up to 12, even 14 hours a day, providing them with desired levels of freedom. Ultimately the devices seemed intended to keep people at home during night time, when most “trouble” happens, rather than aiming at controlling and monitoring their every move. Countries like Sweden and even the UK have not used GPS at all because of the privacy concerns about tracking someone’s moves and the massive amount of data generated which allows cataloging behavior patterns, associations, and activities which are mostly not considered the business of probation.
Vendors Trying to Grapple with Human Rights As Well
In addition to these three notions about monitoring, one of the most surprising aspects of the conference was the sponsorship and the high level presence of vendors of the technology. At first I viewed this with concern, thinking that the conference would be little more than a marketing venture. And while the companies did do their marketing, they also engaged intensely with participants about what probation officers would and would not like to see in future electronic monitoring devices. Engineer Urs Hunkeler, who is a leading force in the recent Swiss monitoring startup Geosatis, co-facilitated an incredibly stimulating workshop in which he focused on matching up the capacities of the engineering world with the needs and wants of probation officers. While like all engineers he had great enthusiasm for the capacity of the technology to capture and archive information, he also listened with an attentive ear to the human rights concerns of these end users. While public-private partnerships often contain a rather minimal influence from the public side, in this case I felt that the industry and the users were attempting to grow together to get a device that would minimize technical difficulties for the users (things like short life of batteries and losing signal) and a size and design that would represent less of stigma to many people. This quote from one of the evaluations from a company representative, echoed this perspective: “I used to say “We are one of those companies who don’t like their customers (Offenders)”, but this conference made me think beyond, at the end of the day offenders are human beings. This conference opens up a new door for me to think from their perspective. The solutions we make should be thought of their day to day practical and social impact on their way of life.”
Concerns
While the debate and overall direction were positive, there were some areas of concern. Belgium, for example, one of high per capita users of electronic monitoring on the continent, is moving to a much tighter GPS/house arrest which would make it almost impossible for those on a monitor to work a night shift job or take part in evening activities. And while the presentations were well-researched and stimulating, apart from myself, no one spoke directly from their own experience of being on a monitor. Although the local Germans require all their probation officers to wear an ankle bracelet for two or three weeks, the stigma and discomfort of the device don’t begin to equate with the institutional control and the threat of reincarceration that comes with most EM regimes, especially those in the US. The voice of the monitored and their loved ones needs a presence in such gatherings.
Lastly, no one seemed to have any startling predictions about the future of electronic monitoring, nor was there a sense of extreme urgency to move forward. Perhaps the CEP has achieved its pinnacle with the completion of a recommendation on electronic monitoring adopted by the European Union in February, 2014. The document, which hopefully will acquire some hegemony and influence implementation, carefully balances human rights, rehabilitation and public safety concerns. It has been a great influence on my own work in the US. However, as Dominic Lehner asked in the opening session, “what good is a recommendation?” The answer is obvious, not much if there is no way to ensure its implementation, and a world of good if people take its spirit into their daily work.
I did leave the conference wondering where monitoring might be heading in Europe. In a continent with an incarceration rate of less than a quarter of that of the US, (and in some countries less than 10% of the US rate) the pressure to decarcerate hasn’t reached critical mass. Nonetheless as rising trends toward austerity push governments to reduce spending on corrections, even in some of the low incarceration states in Europe, EM may gain more popularity. Poland where the Ministry of Justice has put ankle bracelets on 35,000 people in the If other countries go the way of Poland, at least any expansion will have been preceded by a serious debate around the human rights and privacy concerns that the technology raises. Sadly, no such debate has occurred at all in the US, where major research and policy focus continues to be cost-cutting, collecting meta data for recidivism studies of dubious statistical validity, and developing more effective systems of control. In the present environment, where mass incarceration has lost considerable favor in the US, a push toward EM is still a distinct possibility. If this does happen, I can only hope that it will include the kind of serious debate that has taken place in the EU and continuous gatherings of human rights oriented practitioners such as the CEP conference to make sure the bracelet does not become a high-tech version of incarceration or as an Jean-Pierre Shackelford, who spent three years on a monitor referred to it, “twenty first century slavery, electronic style.”

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People Confront Exclusion Zones

exclusion zonesSteven 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.

 

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

G4S Under Investigation for Overcharging for Electronic Monitoring in the UK

The global security firm G4S is under investigation on contracts for electronic monitoring in the UK valued at more than a billion dollars.  International auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has been called into scrutinize the details of this 2005 deal, which involved G4S and another security firm, Serco. G4S is a mega-player in the industry with  an annual turnover of more than ten billion dollars and operations in 125 countries, including the US. Allegations include overcharging to an extent that according to one source, the cost of monitoring in the UK was more than ten times the figure for the US. While it is too early to determine the result in this case, the incident does remind us that electronic monitoring is big business and that global security firms like G4S (which botched the security for the 2012 London Olympics) and the US-based GEO Group view EM as a future source of enormous profits.  Untapped markets include the more than four million people on parole and probation in the US, high school students identified as disciplinary problems and undocumented workers.  Although in many minor criminal cases electronic monitoring may be a welcome relief from a jail or prison sentence, for those marketing the services future clients may more likely come from the ranks of those for whom an ankle bracelet represents an additional, profit-generating control rather than a respite from incarceration.

“What you’re doing is telling kids it’s normal to be tracked”

school bus imageKhaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center responded to the pilot project in Gordon County, GA which would put implement radio frequency (RFID) tracking on school buses. This would enable school officials (and anyone else with access to the system) to pinpoint the location of individual students who are supposed to be on the bus. Gordon County is but the latest in a string of school districts that have moved toward some kind of tracking of students.  As Barnes said, “what you’re doing is tell kids its normal to be tracked.”

For the complete article, visit: http://www.ibtimes.com/invasion-privacy-rfid-tracking-kids-school-buses-privacy-advocates-concerned-attendance-management

We have reported in this blog on previous cases in Texas.

Texas Bill Would End Mandatory Tracking of Schoolkids

Texas House Bill 101 would rule out mandatory tracking devices for school students. The Bill states the following:

school district may not require a student to use an identification device that uses radio frequency identification technology or similar technology to identify the student, transmit information regarding the student, or track the location of the student.

This  is an important step to stop this criminalizing of school children. For more information, visit: http://www.tagtexas.org/headline/action-alert-protect-texas-students-from-rfid-tracking-devices.html

GPS Monitoring Planned on School Buses in Tyler, TX

Texas leads the nation in finding ways to electronically monitor school children. Two schools in San Antonio are now requiring all students to carry GPS-linked I.D. cards on campus. Now Tyler TX schools want to give students a GPS card that they will have to swipe to get on a school bus so they can be tracked en route to school.  The setup costs for this and GPS monitors on the bus will be $134,000 at a time when schools are slashing so many educational and extracurricular activities, how do they spare money for GPS systems? For the story go to: http://www.trackwhatmatters.com/bus-tracking

For more info on other tracking of school kids see David Rosen’s article at Salon.com:http://www.salon.com/2012/10/08/big_brother_invades_our_classrooms/

 

Two San Antonio Schools Implement Mandatory GPS

Two schools in San Antonio, John Jay High and Anson Jones Middle School are forcing all students to carry a student card that is linked to a GPS tracking device during school hours. Apparently students who refuse to carry the card are being denied privileges such as attending homecoming events.  Reports have also surfaced of school administrators making threats to take more serious punitive action. Motivation for the GPS system seems largely financial as funding formulas reward increasing class attendance. However, some parents and local activists have opposed the cards and demonstrated outside the school.

While this is not the usual type of electronic monitoring we discuss on this site, this has serious implications for the potential to extend various types of monitoring to new target groups. Not surprisingly both John Jay and Anson Jones are more than 80% Latino.

To read more on this story visit:  http://www.scdigest.com/ontarget/12-10-10-3.php?cid=6299

Welcome to Voice of the Monitored

Welcome to Voice of the Monitored, a website dedicated to waking people up to the realities of electronic monitoring in the US criminal justice system. Every day about 200,000 people face their day wearing an ankle bracelet. But with prison overcrowding and rising state budget deficits, those numbers will grow. Electronic monitoring is the wave of the future. It’s time for everyone to find out more about this-to make sure it doesn’t become a technological ball and chain. Here’s some links to begin to help you to know what’s up:

Link to the web page of Robert Gable, inventor of electronic monitoring who wanted it to be used as a way to send positive information, not increase surveillance and control. Read about how he feels betrayed by the way monitoring is used today:

http://rgable.wordpress.com/electronic-monitoring-of-criminal-offenders/

Is electronic monitoring an alternative to incarceration or a technological ball and chain?

http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/30/the-rise-of-electronic-monitoring-in-criminal-justice/

Is the rise of electronic monitoring the result of the failure of our prison system? Graeme Wood of The Atlantic magazine thinks so. Read his story here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/09/prison-without-walls/308195/

Read the story of big money in electronic monitoring: the $372 million contract BI Incorporated, now owned by private prisons firm the GEO group, signed with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to supervise 27,000 immigrants awaiting court decisions.

http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2010/03/16/who-profits-ices-electronic-monitoring-anklets-0

Should high school students with records of truancy be put on electronic monitors? Some schools in Dallas think so. Read about it at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/12/education/12dallas.html

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