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Voice of the Monitored

Keeping an eye on the monitors

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sex offenders

“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.

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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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