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No More Shackles: Why We Must End the Use of Electronic Monitors for People On Parole, Challenging E-Carceration

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No More Shackles

Why We Must End the Use of Electronic Monitors for People on Parole

a report for Challenging E-Carceration and the #NoDigitalPrisons campaign

This report was produced by the Challenging E-Carceration project team: James
Kilgore, Emmett Sanders and Myaisha Hayes. It is part of the Center for Media
Justice’s #NoDigitalPrisons campaign.
Funding support came from the Soros Justice Fellowship funded by the Open
Society Institute.
For more, read the #NoDigitalPrisons blog
series: medium.com/nodigitalprisons
and visit challengingecarceration.org.
Cover photo by Micol Seigel.

The Center for Media Justice fights for racial and economic equity in a digital age. They boldly advance communication rights, access, and power for all
communities harmed by persistent inequality. Learn more at mediajustice.org
The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center is a grassroots organization committed to using media production and distribution as tools for
promoting social and economic justice in the Champaign County area.

No More Shackles: Why We Must End the Use of
Electronic Monitors for People On Parole
As decarceration and ending cash bail rise to prominence on the criminal legal
agenda, electronic monitoring (EM) has gained favor as an alleged alternative
to incarceration. We reject this approach. We view EM as an alternative form
of incarceration, an example of what we call E-Carceration-the deprivation of
liberty by technological means.

Hence, as part of the greater movement for transforming the criminal legal
system, we call for the elimination of the use of monitoring for individuals on
parole. When people have done their time, they should be cut loose, not made
to jump through more hoops and be shackled with more devices, punitive rules and
threats of reincarceration. This report explains why we advance this position.

Introduction
It is common knowledge that mass incarceration has led to a dramatic increase in
the number of people locked up in prisons
and jails. A less well-known fact is that
mass incarceration has been accompanied
by an equally enormous growth in the
number of people under state supervision
in the form of parole, probation or supervised release. From 1980 to 2015, the
number of individuals on probation rose
Charlie Parrish, a youth work formerly on EM, stands next to Orlando
Mayorga holding a painting representing his own experience being monitored.
from 1.1 million to 4.3 million. The ranks
of those on parole, the focus of this report, grew from 220,400 to 826,100.

Not only did the number of individuals on parole rise, but the conditions of supervision became much more stringent. Though regulations and practice vary
from state to state, typical parole conditions now include regular drug testing,
a ban on associating with individuals with a criminal record, and an extensive
set of fees and fines. Two dozen conditions are the norm but some individuals

1

in Wisconsin have reported more than 70 conditions on their parole regime. As
Brian Fischer, former commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, put it, “Most of us could not live under
the rules of parole because there are too many of them.”
Moreover, the role of parole officers has shifted from providing support to policing behavior. This change led to a dramatic expansion of the number of individuals who “violated” a rule of their
LEADING STATES IN USE OF
supervision and were then sent back
ELECTRONIC MONITORING FOR PAROLE
to prison. In 1980 only 17% of those
returned to prison had violated parole.
State
People on Parole w/ EM
By 1999, parole violations accounted
Florida*
7300
for more than a third of prison admisTexas
6446
sions. In 2017, in Arkansas, 38% of
California
6250
the entire state prison population was
Michigan
5929
locked up for parole violations. MoreMass.*
5000
over, in many states more than half
*Florida and Massachusetts totals include both people on parole and probation with EM.
Sources: Freedom of Information Act Requests, Michigan Department of Corrections
of these were “technical violations,”
Statistical Report 2016
actions that did not involve criminal
activity but often involved something
as simple as missing a scheduled meeting with a parole officer or failing to
report a change of address. A 2017 survey of 42 state prison systems found
61,250 people in prison for technical violations. 	

To make matters worse, many conditions seemed purposeless or even destructive to a person wanting to succeed in the community after incarceration. For
example, some individuals were banned from accessing the Internet or owning
a computer, even if their offense did not involve technology. In Alabama, Pursuant to Code § 15-22-29, the Parole Board must include in conditions of parole
that a person must “abandon evil associates and ways.” The regulation fails to
define what qualifies as evil.

Changing Tides in Community Corrections

In the past two years, the excessive use of what mainstream analysts call “community corrections,” has attracted increasing criticism. In mid-2016, the Prison
Policy Initiative (PPI), published a report that provided detailed data on the use

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of parole in various states. The statistics showed a
wide range. For example, Pennsylvania had nearly
twice as many people on parole as in prison whereas in Maine the number of individuals on parole was
just 1% of the prison population. In the wake of the
PPI report came two other important documents,
the “Statement on the Future of Community Corrections,” released in August of 2017 and the product of
a collaboration led by the Harvard Kennedy School,
and then a January 2018 document from Columbia
University Justice Lab entitled: “Too big to succeed:
The impact of the growth of community corrections
and what should be done about it.” The Harvard
Kennedy School report was signed by over two dozen organizations, including
the ACLU, JustLeadershipUSA, and the American Probation and Parole Association. It called for reducing the “length of stay under community supervision,”
reducing the number of conditions and “eliminating or significantly curtailing”
supervision fees. The Columbia Justice Lab set a definite target stating that “an
important aspect of improving community corrections” would be to “downsize
the grasp of community corrections by at least half.”

Loosen the Grip of Parole: Eliminate Electronic Monitoring

The broad-brush calls by mainstream critics concerning the excessive reach of
community corrections merit concrete action. Of all the conditions imposed on
individuals on parole, likely none is more intrusive, punitive and dehumanizing
than electronic monitoring. It is time to rein in electronic monitoring before
the net widens to capture more individuals from vulnerable populations which
are disproportionately people of color.1
Our call to abolish electronic monitoring as a condition of parole is not a spontaneous proposition. Rather, this decision comes after extensive research into
the impact and function of EM as a condition imposed on individuals post-incarceration. While we have serious critiques of the use of electronic monitoring in other instances, we believe that EM applied to individuals on parole
presents some unique features which make this issue warrant immediate
attention.
1	
The total number of people on parole with electronic monitoring in the US is difficult to determine. The Bureau of Justice has not published figures
since 2010 and even then many states had no entries. Through a combination of Freedom of Information Act requests and other queries, we have procured data
on 20 states. The total number of people on parole in those 20 states is about 45,000. Based on this we estimate the total numbers of people on parole with EM at
about 80,000, which includes both GPS and RF devices.

3

Six Pillars for Ending the Use of Electronic
Monitoring for Parole

1. 	 Electronic Monitoring is an extension of 		
	incarceration.
2. 	 It greatly limits the freedom and potential 	
	 success of people on parole.
3. 	 It does not save money.
4. 	 Its effectiveness is not supported by any 		
	 significant body of evidence.
5. 	 Its rules, regulations and legal
	 frameworks lack consistency.
6. 	 Its expansion extends the reach of the
	 surveillance state.
4

Pillar One: An Extension of Incarceration
Advocates for electronic monitoring argue it is a vehicle for decarceration, an
actual alternative to incarceration. Yet, both the legal framing of incarceration
and the lived experience of people with EM refute that notion.

The basic definition of incarceration is deprivation of liberty. Virtually all electronic monitoring parole regimes come with a condition of house arrest. Under
house arrest, a person cannot move from their place of residence without permission, much like they cannot leave
their cell in prison unless granted
permission by a prison authority.
This is deprivation of liberty.
To justify the use of monitoring as
a condition of parole and for other
situations, courts have engaged in
extremely confused debates over
terms and definitions. Typically this
revolves around whether the court views time spent on a monitor as equivalent to time in prison or jail in terms of sentencing. In Illinois, some jurisdictions differentiate between “home supervision” (no credit) and “home confinement” (credit)2. However there is no clear definition of the difference between
supervision and confinement. A Washington state case says a person with a
felony case is entitled to credit for pretrial time served on a monitor whereas
someone with a misdemeanor is not.3 There has also been considerable debate
about whether a monitor constitutes a “regulatory” (no credit) or “punitive”
(credit) measure.4 Ultimately these verbal gymnastics aim to provide legal
cover for imposing this restriction on people without genuine justification. In
short, they use it because it adds another dimension of control.

While legal scholars debate semantics, for the vast majority of individuals on
parole with an electronic monitor, their status is clear. Johnny Page, who spent
23 years in Illinois prisons before spending 90 days on a monitor, described
his time on EM: “It’s like being locked up but you’re paying your own bills…you
don’t have to fight for the shower, you don’t have to fight for the telephone, but
2	
3	
4	

People of the state of Illinois v. Robert Theodore
Harris v. Charles
Outlined in Murphy, Erin. Paradigms of Restraint, 57 Duke L. J. 1321 (2008)

5

you’re still in jail.” Richard Stapleton, former Administrator for Legal Affairs for
the Dept. of Corrections, concurred with this assessment, calling the monitor
“another burdensome condition of extending their incarceration.”5 Monica Cosby, who was on a monitor while in a Chicago halfway house, said that “whatever place you are in becomes a satellite jail.”

Despite the evidence of people’s experience, legal authorities have tied themselves in contradictory knots with their own punitive urges. There are now
more than twenty states that define
tampering with an electronic monitor
or removing the monitor as a crime
of escape. In Georgia a person can be
sentenced to up to five years in prison for tampering with a monitor, but
a person on a monitor does not get
credit for time served. This begs the obvious question, if being on a monitor is
not a form of incarceration, how can a person be escaping from it? These contradictory arguments provide ample evidence that EM is simply being added as
another punitive dimension to parole.

Edmund Buck, who spent time on a monitor after nearly two decades in prison,
explained the use of monitors like this: “Initially I think it’s the idea of an added
layer of control…I would say the more they hinder a person from getting back
into the flow of life outside of prison, the greater the likelihood they would fall
into old patterns.”

Pillar Two: Limits Freedom and Hinders Success

Perhaps the most important reason to reject electronic monitoring as a condition of parole is that it limits the freedom of people coming home and hinders their ability to successfully transition to the community. The curtailing
of freedom for people on EM reaches into most aspects of a person’s life. Our
interviews with dozens of individuals across the country provide a bounty of
evidence of these hindrances. These fall under two categories:
1. Difficulties in obtaining movement: The key to freedom for a person on
parole is the ability to move about freely. Movement is essential for a person
5	

Personal interview, June 26, 2013

6

to find employment, secure housing, take part in family, community and religious activities. One consistent complaint is that call center operators who
handle all communication between people on EM and their parole officers are
frequently slow to answer the phone and
often fail to record pre-arranged movements.
Apart from the call center, the most common complaint people have about movement is difficulty in obtaining or keeping
work. A number of issues emerged from
interviews with people on parole who had
experience with EM:

•	 Getting movement for job interviews is often difficult, since appointments
often come at short notice
•	 Work that involves travel or changing workplaces is often not allowed. Since
jobs like house cleaning, landscaping, construction, and delivery all pose
a challenge for tracking a person’s location, such employment is often not
allowed.
•	 Changes in work schedules or unplanned overtime are difficult to accommodate with EM as movement typically must be approved in advance and
for a specific period of time.
•	 Many concrete buildings such as warehouses interfere with the signal of
a GPS monitor. This often means a person must leave work and go outside
to pick up the signal or phone into their parole officer. This creates tension
with employers.
•	 All this is compounded by many employers’ reticence to hire someone who
is wearing an ankle monitor, especially if they are dealing with customers.
Beyond the realm of employment, other problems with movement are:

•	 Short perimeters on the house arrest programming which prevent a person
from doing tasks like emptying garbage, doing yard work, smoking a cigarette on the front stoop.
•	 Requests for movement for family, parenting or community activities are
often refused.

7

•	 Delayed response to request for movement which leads to missed appointments.
•	 Responding to any type of emergency, especially one which occurs after
hours, is often difficult. A person may be forced to take the risk of going
back to prison for unauthorized movement to get a sick child to the hospital,
or to pick up an elderly person during bad weather.
•	 Movement is for very specific time frames which don’t allow for issues of
traffic or public transport delays.
•	 Exclusion zones may prevent people from visiting homes of family members.
2. Impingement on life and resources of
loved ones: A virtual universal complaint
about electronic monitoring is that it creates additional burdens for loved ones. The
most common complaint is that being in the
house of a family member while on EM adds
financial burdens. Since having the monitor
makes it harder to access employment, the
person on EM becomes dependent financially
on loved ones. This means the loved ones not
only must cover housing, but food, travel costs, plus additional water, power
and other household bills. But the burdens are more than financial. People also
report that:

•	 Family members must be subjected to searches by a parole officer or by the
police, which often come unannounced and at inconvenient hours.
•	 The household may be required to have a landline phone which is an additional expense.
•	 The rules of parole may stipulate that the household contain no alcohol.
•	 Some jurisdictions actually mandate that an available household member
must do tasks like shopping and laundry rather than giving movement to the
person on EM.
•	 If another family member is on a monitor or comes home on parole, they
may be barred from living there.
•	 Family may have to change plans in order to accommodate the designated
movement times.
8

Pillar Three: No Evidence
Advocates of EM claim it contributes to reducing crime and recidivism, ultimately enhancing public safety. Yet there is no concrete evidence that putting
people on EM as part of parole has a positive impact on recidivism or crime
rates. In 2017 a team of experts from University College London carried out
the largest EM investigation project to date- a global study of the English language research done on electronic monitoring from 1999 to the present. They
focused on electronic monitors’ contribution to reductions in recidivism. They
found 372 studies, 17 of which attempted to quantitatively measure EM’s
impact on recidivism. Their overall findings showed contradictory results and
they concluded that “electronic monitoring of offenders does not have a statistically significant effect on reducing re-offending.”
Florida Case Study: Junk Science

The study that EM supporters consistently cite as evidence of the positive impact of
EM on recidivism was done by a University of Florida team led by Professor William
Bales. His team published a control study in 2010 involving over 270,000 people on
parole in Florida over a six year period. According to their data, EM reduced the rate
of recidivism by 31%. But this study suffered from at least two major flaws. First, it
attempted to control for 122 variables to level the playing field between those who
were on monitors and those who weren’t. This number of variables is far too many
to accurately isolate the impact of electronic monitoring. Second, the most important
variable in determining recidivism is the policy and practice of parole officers. This
was not factored into the study. If, during the period under study, a specific rule for
violation of parole changes changes, or if the policy or practice of the parole agents
shifts, the number of violations can quickly go up or down.

Pillar Four: It Doesn’t Actually Save Any Money
EM firms constantly stress how much cheaper electronic monitoring is than
prison or jail. In some situations, this comparison might be valid. It does not
apply to using EM with parole. EM adds to parole costs. Placing a person on
parole on EM means the department of corrections or Bureau of Prisons must
9

pay for the technology as well as hire additional personnel to monitor those
on the monitor. Supervising someone on parole with EM requires far more
personnel hours than a person on straight parole. A parole agent must look
daily, sometimes more frequently, at a person’s movement to make sure they
are not in any “exclusion zones” (areas where they are not permitted to go.) In
addition, false monitor alarms and
technical failures are frequent,
meaning parole officers have to
spend extra time tracking down
those they are supervising.
Companies propose to solve the
cost issues with “revolutionary
offender-funded schemes.” However, these are not viable. People
on parole have just completed a
prison sentence, a period during
which they earned little or even
zero income.

So while charging user fees may look financially feasible on paper, the reality is
that most fees will not be paid. They will merely be an addition to the vast set
of financial service fees that most people face when they do emerge from prison. Even if they are paid, they are taking funds away from the meager resources
people have to pull their survival together. Financial vulnerability means they
will be all that more likely to end up back behind bars.
Rather than being a genuine financial strategy, offender-funded schemes are
nothing more than an attempt to monetize and privatize parole. Instead of
building up the resources to provide support for individuals who are coming
home from prison, the monetizing of parole structures is meant to maximize
profit for the private vendors and extract the revenue either from the taxpayers
or from those who are their direct victims. The parole market for EM is growing, and four companies make most of the profits from contracts with state
departments of corrections (see p. 12 for details on these companies.).

10

Pillar Five: Lack of Consistent Rules and Regulations
In many jurisdictions people on parole with EM state that they are not sure
what the rules are or even what kind
of device they are on. Many report
that they are given nothing more than
a single piece of paper which informs
them that they must not leave their
house without explicit permission,
must charge their device every day,
and must pay for any damaged or lost
equipment. In some states, they must
sign a document that acknowledges
their acceptance of the conditions with the added rejoinder that they can be
prosecuted for escape if they tamper with or remove the device.

Richard Stapleton, formerly with the Michigan Department of Corrections,
maintains that people’s movements and regulations are “at the whim of their
parole agent.” A former parole agent in Colorado affirmed this stating: “monitoring of offenders is such a subjective process it seems that I’m not sure that
for those on parole there really is a coherent set of guidelines that strikes the
appropriate balance between allowing offenders to reintegrate into society
and find work while also ensuring community safety.”
Technical Flaws in Devices

While we do not encourage the spending of more money to improve the accuracy of
devices, to date the technology has had frequent technical failures. Nearly everyone
on a GPS tracking device reports that at some time the device loses the satellite signal. This can trigger an alarm which may also trigger an arrest warrant. Mario Koran
chronicled a number of such incidents in Wisconsin in 2013. Some locations simply don’t connect with the satellite. The biggest technical problem with monitors is
battery failure. Most EM devices must be plugged in twice a day for an hour at a time.
While batteries are supposed to last for twelve hours they often go flat long before
that. If the battery goes flat an alarm is triggered. So people often have to charge their
devices in public places like fast food restaurants or rush home to avoid an alarm.

11

The lack of clear cut policy has several serious implications:
•	 A person doesn’t know exactly when or for what purpose movement will be
permitted.
•	 There is no clear framework of penalties for an infraction. This means a
person who returns home late from work because of a public transportation
delay can be sent back to prison or merely forgiven.
•	 No clear incentives exist for reducing the strictness of the regulations or for
having the device removed early.
•	 A person’s supervisor can change frequently with each supervisor having a
different set of rules they follow.

COMPANIES PROFITING OFF ANKLE SHACKLES
FOR PEOPLE ON PAROLE

Company
Name

Owner

States Where
They Contract
with DOC*

Annual
Revenue

BI Incorporated

GEO Group
Private prison
operator

AK, IL, ME, MO,
MT, NM, NC, OR,
RI, UT, WI

83.9 mn
(BI Only)
$2.26bn
(GEO Group
2017)

Satellite
Tracking of
People (STOP)

Securus
Technologies

AR, CA, HI, ME,
MO, MT, NE, ND,
OR, RI, SD, TN,
UT

$404 mn
(Securus 2015)

Sentinel
Offender
Services

Robert
Contestabile

CT, LA, MS, NV,
WA

$103.9 mn

Attenti
(formerly 3M)

Apax Partners

AK, MI, IA, MA,
OH, OK, VT, WA,
WV

$95 mn (Attenti)
$305 mn
(Apax 2016)

*Department of Corrections. Some states contract with more than one company. For example, they may rent
GPS tracking devices from one company but rent the SCRAM devices used to detect blood alcohol from another firm.

12

Pillar Six: Extending the Reach of the Surveillance State
EM has grave implications for
the future in two ways. First, the
spread of EM lays the groundwork
for a new form of mass incarceration: locking people up in their
homes and communities. As the
capacity of devices increases, the
possibility of more precisely and
comprehensively restricting people’s movements looms. Beyond
house arrest, we could see a form
of E-Gentrification with exclusion
An ankle shackle used to monitor immigrants who have been released from detention
facilities.
zones programmed into devices
and areas of movement restricted according to demographics, income, criminal background, citizenship status, etc.

Apart from being a means to implement house arrest and limit movement,
electronic monitoring with GPS capacity is a surveillance device. Even the
most rudimentary GPS monitors track and store a person’s location, pinpointing their associations and places they frequent. This location tracking information ends up stored in a database which is either under the control of the state
or a private vendor. In either case, there is little regulation of how this data
may be used. In many jurisdictions many parties have access to this data.

While this accumulation of data is frightening in its present form, future technologies will have greater surveillance powers. Already some devices are
linked to cell phones. Individuals may be ordered to video record their location and everyone in their company. Given the power of facial recognition technology, this means authorities could construct all sorts of criminalized networks via digital links. While it is early days in the journey of this technology,
researchers at the University of Massachusetts (Lowell) have already secured
a grant to investigate designing a device that measures a range of biometrics
and, if biometrics indicate a point of personal crisis, recommends intervention.
13

A further concern rests in current experimentation with implanted computer
chips. A Wisconsin employer has already embedded chips in the hands of some
of their employees. With these chips, the individual may be able to digitally
performs tasks such as open doors, operate a photocopier, log onto a computer
and pay for purchases in a vending machine. While at present designers claim
that such chips do not have GPS capacity, it’s doubtless that this feature along
with additional biometric measurements will be incorporated into devices in
the future.7

Conclusion

When people have done their time, they should be set free. Instead of using
technology to further restrain and punish people released from prison, authorities should be mobilizing technology to provide employment, education,
training and other opportunities to get individuals moving down the path
away from prisons and jails and toward contributing to the development of
their community. This imperative is particularly crucial in the communities of
color that have been hardest hit by mass criminalization and mass incarceration. It is time to challenge E-Carceration and build genuine alternatives to the
prison industrial complex that put resources into communities, not punitive
surveillance technology.

7	

J. Graham, L. Schulte, “Wisconsin workers embedded with microchips,” USA Today, August 1, 2017

14

 

 

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