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.
(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.
SHAWN HARRIS OF LANSING MI TALKS ABOUT BEING ON ELECTRONIC MONITORING
Shawn 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.
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.
According to the company 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/
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/
This from the Newberry (South Carolina) Observer on September 10, 2012:
A Whitmire man was sentenced to time in general sessions court last week after not charging his electronic monitoring system.
Joe Nathan Neal, 42, of 1935 Drayton St., Newberry, pleaded guilty to willful violation of terms of electronic motoring.
He reportedly failed to charge his monitoring system after being told to do so by S.C. Probation, Pardon and Pardon agents.
Neal was sentenced to serve five years in prison for the offense.
If you don’t believe it, here is the link: