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Other than prison, electronic monitoring is 'the most restrictive form' of control, research finds

“This is a form of incarceration that happens outside of prison walls,” said one expert.

In the past 18 months, as the judicial system has increasingly used electronic monitoring instead of prisons to monitor inmates through the coronavirus pandemic, newly released data confirm what activists and advocates have long argued: Ankle monitors are onerous, and they often subject wearers to vague rules, like avoiding people of “disreputable character.”

The ankle monitoring business, the research found, is also dominated by four profit-seeking companies, and it ultimately could drive more people back to prison.

The new, comprehensive collection of hundreds of electronic monitoring-related rules, policies and contracts, obtained through public records requests across 44 states, demonstrates that four companies that make millions of dollars a year account for 64 percent of the contracts examined in the study. The companies — Attenti, BI Inc., Satellite Tracking of People LLC and Sentinel Offender Services LLC, according to the report — also keep location data indefinitely, even after monitoring is completed, which is within the law. Governments also often require family members or employers to act as agents of the government and report potential violations, putting them in an awkward position in which they must be both supportive and supervisory.

Crucially, wearers must pay both one-time and ongoing fees for the monitors, which can be $25 to over $8,000 a year. The report argues that such costs “undermine financial security when it is needed most.” By comparison, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons said in 2018 that it costs just under $100 per day to incarcerate a federal inmate, or over $36,000 a year. Put another way, wearers in Los Angeles and Sacramento counties in California, which impose the highest annual costs, according to the new findings, pay $22 a day — still considerably less than what taxpayers would otherwise pay.

“This is a form of incarceration that happens outside of prison walls,” said Kate Weisburd, an associate professor of law at George Washington University, who led a team of 10 law students that filed and analyzed the trove of documents. “It’s always intended to be a positive alternative to incarceration. But based on what we found, it’s doing the opposite. More rules and more surveillance generally leads to higher incarceration.”

Monica Hook, a spokeswoman for GEO Care, a division of the GEO Group, a private prison company, declined to respond to what she said was an “unfinished and less-than-balanced piece.” Representatives from the three other companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Put another way, people on monitors are subject to a vast number of government rules, which “makes compliance difficult,” according to the report. Some of the rules are quite vague. For example, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole mandates that wearers “shall abandon evil associates and ways,” while the New Mexico Corrections Department says parolees must “maintain acceptable behavior.”

Matthew Estes, a spokesperson for the Alabama agency, declined to respond to a question about what the language means. He said in an email that the bureau is “making many exciting advances in rehabilitative treatment programs for probationers and parolees this coming fiscal year, including expanding our GPS program.”

The New Mexico Corrections Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Weisburd’s research found that because the results are open to interpretation and wearers can be hit with “technical violations” of the rules, “people are more likely to be reincarcerated for minor infractions that previously would have been invisible and ignored.”

In most cases, electronic monitoring is coupled with a form of house arrest — wearers must stay at or near their homes for a certain amount of time. They cannot leave without permission in advance. But according to the policies and contracts that Weisburd and her team obtained, most agencies do not clearly explain how far in advance such permission must be sought.

“Basically, every record we looked at had a negative impact, and by every measure it undermines people’s ability to survive outside of prison,” she said. “Just having to comply with the sheer number of rules, vague and broad rules, it means people are getting dinged more easily.”

Weisburd’s findings are a departure from the long-standing belief that electronic monitoring is a lesser form of punishment because prisoners are able to remain in their homes. It is used in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as by federal law enforcement agencies, to track the locations of people on pretrial release, probation and parole. The devices, which must be worn on the body, use radio signals and, sometimes, smartphone apps or, more commonly, GPS-based ankle monitors, all of which broadcast wearers’ locations.

The most recent data from the Pew Charitable Trust, released in 2016, found that about 131,000 people were on monitors during a single day. Weisburd and her team say in the report that “it is likely that the numbers are higher considering the pressure to release people from incarceration because of the pandemic.” Another recent study, also from Pew, found that, according to the most recent data available, 2.1 million people were incarcerated across federal and state systems, the lowest figure since 1995.

The frequency with which such monitoring is assigned varies wildly across the country. For example, Weisburd’s research shows that over 11,000 people who are on probation are also on monitors in Marion County, Indiana, alone, while the entire state of Florida has less than half that number, at just over 5,400.

Emmett Sanders, a Texas-based researcher with the civil rights advocacy organization Media Justice, said ankle monitors were “insidious.”

“It’s looked as a humane approach to safety, and there’s this idea that it equals freedom. But it’s punitive,” he said, adding that he was afraid to step outside his apartment to take out the trash or check his mailbox because he feared inadvertently breaching the terms of his release.

Sanders was imprisoned in Illinois for over 22 years ending in December 2016, and he was on electronic monitoring while he was on supervised release for 90 days ending in March 2017. He even got married while wearing his monitor.

“One time I was on the monitor and the box came unplugged in my house, and my wife and I worried that it might result in my going back to prison,” he said, referring to the radio device that transmits the monitor’s location.

Sanders, who has argued against electronic monitoring, said the new research is needed now more than ever.

“The lack of data — ironically for a thing that collects data and uses it against people — there’s not much about who is on it,” he said. “I’m hopeful that this report will show what we don’t know.”