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Incarcerated at home: The rise of ankle monitors and house arrest during the pandemic

Researchers who study recidivism say the surveillance devices hurt people trying to get their life on track after prison and that there’s no evidence the technology is rehabilitative.
Evelyn Canal, Dream Beyond Bars fellow and advocate for incarcerated youth, in Oakland, Calif., on Jun 24, 2021
Evelyn Canal, Dream Beyond Bars fellow and advocate for incarcerated youth, in Oakland, Calif., on June 24. Canal, who was fitted with an ankle monitor while in the juvenile justice system as a youth, recounted what it was like wearing a monitor and now fights for young people's rights while in the system.Peter DaSilva / for NBC News

During the pandemic, as jails raced to release incarcerated people because prisons became coronavirus hot spots, many judges nationwide responded by putting those who were being released in electronic ankle monitors that tracked their movements 24 hours a day. Other people were assigned ankle monitors as an alternative to bail as they awaited trial in a backlogged court system that moved online.

Now, early data shows how much the use of electronic ankle monitoring rose nationwide during that time, according to research from Kate Weisburd, a law professor at George Washington University and a former juvenile defender. Researchers are finding that ankle monitors are keeping people connected to the prison system longer than ever, as more remain strapped to the devices for over a year.

“Everyone is looking for ways of getting people out of custody, which obviously is a good thing,” Weisburd said. “But what's happening in some jurisdictions in the adult system is that more and more people are being released on monitors as a response to decarceration.”

In Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff Office's use of ankle monitors for adults who are awaiting trial jumped from 2,600 people in April last year to over 3,500 in December, according to data from the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, a research and civil liberties group that advocates to improve court processes and find alternatives to incarceration. Chief Adriana Morales of the sheriff’s office said in a statement that electronic monitoring is always court-ordered and confirmed that during Covid-19 there’s been a “dramatic increase” in orders for them.

Law enforcement departments that use electronic monitoring say the devices are supposed to serve as an alternative to incarceration and help people remain in their community rather than serving time in jail. But interviews with people who have been incarcerated and then placed on ankle monitors and researchers who study recidivism say the surveillance devices hurt people trying to get their life on track after prison and that there’s no evidence the technology is rehabilitative. They often drag adults and youth even deeper into the criminal justice system and sometimes back behind bars.

“I've seen kids incarcerated for technical violations of their prohibition terms with an ankle monitor,” said Cancion Sotorosen, an attorney with the Youth Defender Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, California. “Going to the store on the way home, seeing their friends at the park — for all of those technical violations, they can and do go back to jail.”

Kendrick Fulton, who was released to home confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, finishes his first walk since he had knee surgery in Round Rock, Texas, on April 8. He wears an ankle monitor that he must charge nightly in order to comply with the terms of his release.Nuri Vallbona / Reuters file

Law enforcement experts find that ankle monitors seem to work best for a targeted population, like adults who are found to be at high risk to reoffend, said Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota. “But for your average drug and property offenses, it’s not a good use at all.”

Mitchell said electronic monitoring can be helpful from a probation officer’s perspective when keeping track of individuals who have committed more serious offenses or violent crimes but would still benefit from being taken out of the jail system.

“Electronic monitoring can provide a little bit of extra something to monitor that person for a period of time if we decide that we’re ready to give them a chance in the community,” Mitchell said.

Ankle monitors were first developed by social psychologists in the 1960s in an effort to offer positive reinforcement to juvenile offenders. They came into use by the justice system in the 1980s and early 1990s.

While they still offer the upside of an alternative to prison or jail, they have in recent years become the focus of growing skepticism — particularly as their use has widened. Advocates for criminal justice reform say that while ankle monitors may appear preferable for people who hope to get out of jail sooner, they don’t address systemic issues that land so many people behind bars.

“We're not putting resources into their communities to address the issues of violence, to address the issues of unemployment and poverty and structural racism,” said James Kilgore, an author and activist with the Challenging E-Carceration project at the Center for Media Justice. “Instead we’re going to slap this thing on them so we can track them, and we can keep them locked up in their house.”

One minute late

When Evelyn Canal was first placed on probation in high school for charges associated with auto theft, she was given the choice to either be on house arrest with an electronic ankle monitor or return to juvenile hall. The device was secured so tight around her ankle that it cut into her skin, she said, causing lacerations. But Canal couldn’t loosen it. Just like she couldn’t step out of her house to take out the trash without violating her house arrest, she said, which would land her back in juvenile hall.

“All the complaining people are doing about Zoom fatigue and staying in the house and not going outside, imagine being forced to do that by the government,” Canal said.

Canal — who is now 20, based in the Bay Area and in college studying for a business degree — was one of the roughly 10,000 youth who are put on electronic ankle monitoring a year in the state of California, according to a report from the University of California, Berkeley, law school on the use of ankle monitors in the state’s juvenile justice programs. While the use of electronic monitoring is high across California, in Alameda County, where Canal lives, there have been efforts to reform electronic monitoring of juvenile offenders, according to Brian Ford, the assistant chief probation officer of the juvenile division of Alameda County. There are currently 25 young people in the surveillance devices in the county, compared to 51 youths who were assigned the monitors in 2020, he said

The electronic cuff was provided by the Juvenile Justice Center in Alameda County. Canal said she was innocent, but since she refused to turn in others who were responsible, she was incarcerated and then released on house arrest. She noted all of the rules wearers have to follow. Each violation resulted in two more weeks locked up in juvenile hall, she said.

“I got violated for charging my ankle monitor one minute late,” Canal said. “I also got in trouble when my grandma’s house had a fire at 3 in the morning and I had to evacuate. My GPS officer wanted me to turn myself in because I was standing outside my house after the fire. What was I supposed to do?”

Evelyn Canal, Dream Beyond Bars fellow and advocate for incarcerated youth, at the CURYJ community garden, retreat and gathering space for the Dream Beyond Bars community in Oakland, Calif., on June 24.Peter DaSilva / for NBC News

In Alameda County, young people on ankle monitors are required to charge them daily between 7 and 9 p.m. They must get permission 48 hours in advance from their probation officer to leave their house or go to non-pre-approved locations, making it difficult to attend after-school activities, pick up extra shifts at work, exercise or go to the drug store for a quick errand.

Alameda County changed its rules in April of last year to no longer charge youth with violations for small infractions of the electronic monitoring rules, said Ford, the probation officer. While he could not comment on Canal’s case, Ford added that electronic monitoring for youth in the county is court-ordered.

In other jurisdictions, the rules are even more strict. For adults in electronic monitors in Chicago, their homes are subject to warrantless searches, and wearers have to submit a written request 72 hours in advance to go anywhere other than pre-approved locations, meaning even stopping for gas can amount to a violation. Copies of the wearer’s pay stubs may need to be submitted to the sheriff’s office, too, according to a copy of the rules obtained by NBC News.

Morales, of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said that for minor infractions of the ankle monitor rules, offenders are issued a warning, but a person can be reincarcerated for multiple violations. Morales also said the 72-hour advance request for additional movement is necessary because of the high volume of requests the department has to process from people on ankle monitors.

Pay per day

Though electronic monitoring is cheaper for municipalities and states than jail, the cost of the surveillance device is often passed on to the people wearing them. And during the pandemic, when millions of people lost their jobs and unemployment benefits were backlogged, that cost added up.

In at least 30 states, agencies require those who are placed in an electronic monitor to pay between $2 and $20 a day to wear one, not including activation fees that some counties tack on, according to Weisburd’s research. In areas like Baltimore County, Maryland, the hundreds of dollars a month people assigned to ankle monitors awaiting trial were paying as court dates continued to be delayed due to the pandemic became such a burden that the county moved to eliminate ankle monitor fees altogether.

Ankle monitors can be so expensive that some people in the system must choose between paying rent or their electronic monitor fees, according to Kilgore, with Challenging E-Carceration. Those fees are sometimes paid directly to the private companies contracted to provide the ankle monitors by law enforcement. Kilgore also wore an ankle monitor for a year as a condition of his parole.

While the cost of incarceration is higher than the cost of an ankle monitor and being on house arrest for many is a better option than being in jail, in places like Chicago, the majority of people who are on electronic monitoring are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted. But unlike other jurisdictions, Cook County does not charge offenders.

"People are supposed to have a presumption of innocence," said Patrice James, director of community justice at the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law. "But when you put people on electronic monitoring, you’ve not solved the incarceration problem. It just shifts the jail cell to inside our communities, inside our apartment complexes and to our residential blocks."

Technical difficulties

Like so many electronics, ankle monitors also don’t always work.

When the electronic monitor senses a violation, whether from not being charged at the right time or when someone steps outside their house at the wrong time, the company running the monitor notifies law enforcement. Then officers may be sent to the wearer’s home or work.

With the dramatic increase of people on ankle monitors during the pandemic in Chicago, local watchdogs say they’re seeing a rise in violations for small infractions. Matthew McLoughlin, an organizer with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, said he’s also seen an increase in more false violations and technical glitches for people whose ankle monitors rely on GPS tracking.

“I was talking to a gentleman who had an escape case because he was late getting home from work and had to charge the monitor. He was in Zoom court when they told him they were filing an escape case against him,” McLoughlin said.

Still, Joseph Russo, a board member of the American Parole and Probation Association, said overall, electronic monitors can be a reliable tool for tracking offenders who need a high level of supervision and they can help link people to crimes. One of the rioters who investigators say broke into the Capitol in January was caught because he was wearing an ankle monitor.

“Some people might be deterred who know their location might be tracked. But we’re not dealing with folks who always apply rational thinking to their behaviors,” Russo said. “There’s countless news reports of people being tracked back to murders and other crimes based on their ankle bracelets.”

Growing up

Evelyn Canal now is a Dream Beyond Bars fellow with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides support and advocates to end youth incarceration and criminalization in California. She’s working with the group to pass the Juvenile Justice Realignment bill, which determines what will happen to incarcerated youth in California after state facilities are closed by 2023.

She’s also working to advocate for increased funding for California’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration, which she said could have helped her when she was having trouble with her probation officers and her ankle monitor and felt there was nowhere to turn.

From a criminal justice reform perspective, Weisburd, the law professor, said there’s no empirical evidence that the technology is rehabilitative and that “more often than not people are both on monitors and are in custody because they cycle in and out on small violations.”

“Viewing electronic surveillance as an alternative to incarceration furthers and perpetuates a dangerous false binary between incarceration or monitoring and ignores an obvious third option, which is freedom,” she said.