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Voice of the Monitored

Keeping an eye on the monitors

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parole

LA Times Reports Monitoring Devices Drowning Officials in Useless Information

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.

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Los Angeles Monitors Failing Badly

According to an Associated Press report, one in four electronic monitors in Los Angeles County is faulty.  The report comes as a result of an audit done of the performance of the provider, Sentinel Offender Services, a firm that has been contracting with the county since 1995.  The AP story emphasized that the situation was “allowing dangerous felons to sometimes roam freely for days at a time.” What was missing from the account, was whether any people on monitors were falsely reported away from their homes and disciplined or even returned to custody because of faulty equipment. My own research and interviews with people on monitors reveals that technical faults are common and many people have been wrongly rearrested because their device reported that they were in a forbidden location. In the LA County case reported by the AP, one individual allegedly had to have his device replaced eleven times because of malfunctions. The use of electronic monitors has escalated in California as a result of Governor Jerry Brown’s “realignment” program which has moved thousands of people from overcrowded state prisons to overcrowded county jails. Many counties have opted to release people who have been “realigned” by putting them on electronic monitors.

To read the story on Los Angeles County go 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

“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.

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/

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.

Wisconsin Lawmakers Examine Electronic Monitoring

In responsGPS-JamesMorgan-prayerhands2-1024x670e to Mario Koran’s article exposing incidents where people on electronic monitoring were incarcerated or disciplined because their device falsely reported them out of their house, Wisconsin lawmakers are taking a hard look at the service and questioning whether they want to expand it to include people with a history of domestic violence. One of the victims of these technological errors,  James Morgan, is shown in the photo above.  Koran’s article has a video of an interview with Morgan.

While looking at technical malfunctions is useful, this is the tip of the iceberg of problems with electronic monitoring that require scrutiny.  Before the use of monitoring expands astronomically (as the private providers would like it to do) we need to look at the rules and regulations that apply to people on monitoring in general.  While most of the current media focus goes toward those who may commit crimes by cutting off their ankle bracelets, this is a tiny minority of those on monitoring. The vast majority face a different set of issues-difficulties in getting movement to go to work, to participate in family activities, to enroll in education programs.  The primary need is to make sure electronic monitoring regimes provide enough freedom for people to successfully face the challenge to get their life back on track and keep it going.  This is impossible if the rules and regulations of electronic monitoring focus totally on control and punishment rather than prioritizing promoting life successes for people re-entering from prison and jail.  Lawmakers must ensure that electronic monitoring is part of rehabilitation, not just a cheap and at times inefficient form of technological punishment.

 

 

People in Cali are cutting off their ankle bracelets and running free

A recent investigation by the LA Times reports that many of the 8,000 on electronic monitoring in California are simply removing their devices. The jails are too full to hold them and presumably parole officers are too busy to chase them down. Among other things, this shows that electronic monitoring needs to be a planned program not just a quick fix way to get people out on the streets.  Often part of the reason people cut off leg monitors is because it becomes almost impossible for them to get permission to move out of their house.  We need to know more about what is causing people to cut off their ankle bracelets rather than simply assuming they are doing so out of an urge for criminality. To read the story visit: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/03/thousands-of-paroled-ca-sex-offenders-felons-easily-disable-gps-monitors/

 

Mario Koran Reports on EM Technology Failures with Serious Consequences

Journalist Mario Koran has just released a story for Wisconsin Watch on the cases of dozens of people in Wisconsin whose monitoring devices have malfunctioned, leading them to situations of severe stress and sometimes wrongly landing them back behind bars. The video of James Morgan included in the report is a powerful voice of the monitored. Visit the story at: http://www.wisconsinwatch.org/2013/03/24/lost-signals-disconnected-lives/

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