Somewhere 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.