USA: let’s fight for freedom from electronic monitors and e-carceration
On May 11, 2009, I celebrated my second day of freedom after six-and-a-half years in prison. That same day, a technician from the Department of Corrections arrived and slapped a black plastic band on my ankle. The next morning, my parole agent phoned and told me that with my electronic monitor, I would only be allowed out of the house Monday through Friday from 6 am to 10 am.
That device would keep prison in my life, reminding my family and everyone I encountered that I was a “convict.
I spent a whole year on that monitor, devoting a lot of that e-confinement time to considering the meaning of freedom. People kept asking me, “Well it’s better than prison, isn’t it?” I laughed and told them that that was the wrong question.
Since then, I’ve directed considerable energy to research and agitation about electronic monitoring. I’ve written numerous articles, done dozens of presentations and workshops, even won a fellowship to develop a campaign called Challenging E-Carceration. In my early days of researching electronic monitoring, virtually no one was paying attention.
In the last couple years, however, electronic monitoring has moved out of the shadows. As the drive to reduce carceral spending and cut prison and jail populations has gained momentum, electronic monitors have become a topic of debate and discussion, even at the national level. While Bernie Sanders’s recently released criminal legal reform plan does contain a sharp critique of risk assessment, he completely overlooks electronic monitoring and other forms of e-carceration. Many reformers looking for a techno-quick fix see electronic monitoring as a solution, a way to allegedly keep the public safe and track the criminalized while providing those who have been released from prison or jail with a modicum of freedom.
Fortunately, more people are becoming wary of electronic monitoring and other forms of what we call e-carceration: using technology to deprive people of their liberty. The rising awareness about e-carceration is heartening, but as with all new issues, fresh challenges emerge.
E-Carceration Is Another Form of Incarceration
We have to dispel the notion that electronic monitoring is an alternative to incarceration, that it’s better than jail.
This means getting two points clear. The monitor, along with other forms of e-carceration, is an alternative form of incarceration. When we put a person on a monitor after they have served their prison or jail sentence, we are only extending that sentence by restricting their movement. We are setting them up for failure. Similarly, when we put a person on a monitor while they await judgement in their court case or their asylum hearing, we are punishing them before they have been convicted of anything, violating the fundamental legal premise of innocent until proven guilty.
Having said that, we must be clear on differentiating between what we recommend in individual cases and what we fight for as policy or practice. While electronic monitoring is incarceration, I will never tell someone who is sitting in jail or prison who has a chance to be on a monitor on the outside with loved ones that they should stay behind bars. That is their decision.
On the other hand, I will never fight for the use of electronic monitoring as a policy solution any more than I would fight for building more “humane” prisons and jails. We need to end incarceration, including e-carceration.
Tracking Bodies Has Always Been Central to Incarceration
Monitoring is an evolving technology with long historical roots.
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