With Eddie Conway

Ankle Monitors Continue the Legacy of Mass Incarceration

Pre-trial detention has shifted from brick and mortar prisons to ankle monitors for people that have yet to be charged with a crime. Advocates say that it’s an alternative form of incarceration as they see an increasing number of people held without bond.

Story Transcript

CATE TURNER: In February 2017, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that defendants in the state can’t be held in jail for not being able to afford bail. The movement to limit pretrial detention, especially when it’s rooted in a defendant’s ability to pay, is part of efforts across the country for decarceration, a movement aiming to end the American system of mass incarceration in jails and prisons. But Maryland’s detention system for people awaiting trial stretches far beyond physical jails. Electronic monitoring devices can keep those awaiting their court dates under detention even after they’ve left the jail cell. For most people, ankle monitors, sometimes called ankle bracelets, are the most recognizable type of electronic monitor.

MARIANNE LIMA: The use of electronic home monitoring in a pretrial context has been a relatively recent occurrence. What we saw after the passage of the new bail statute, Maryland rule 216.1, approximately two years ago was that the anticipated rise in release on unsecured bonds and reconnaissance happened. But the alternative was there was then an increase in people held without bond. And the situations where electronic home monitoring comes into play is when those judges who would have set a money bond find themselves in a situation where they want to release a client but they want added conditions.

CATE TURNER: These devices are often framed as an alternative to incarceration that allows people awaiting trial greater freedom and reduces time spent in jail cells where conditions are often inhumane. But many advocates have a different perspective on electronic monitoring.

JAMES KILGORE: We need to recognize that it’s not an alternative to incarceration; it’s an alternative form of incarceration. It deprives people of their liberty, and that’s the definition of incarceration.

CATE TURNER: Those who are required to wear monitors face restrictions that prevent them from living their lives on their own schedules while they await trial.

JAMES KILGORE: I personally spent a year on an electronic monitor as a condition of my own parole. And I had to get permission up to two weeks in advance from my parole agent to be able to even go shopping or do anything that took me outside of my house.

NICOLE MUNDELL: Jobs. Being able to get access to a job. No employer wants to see someone come in their establishment with this big huge box on their ankle. Right? And so even if that person is qualified, there’s this stigma associated with having electronic monitoring like you must have done something.

MARIANNE LIMA: I’ve seen clients lose jobs simply because the schedule they had when they were detained has changed. And now the court has ruled that you were only allowed to go to work these hours, but now there’s a different shift. And they lose their job that way.

CATE TURNER: They also make it difficult for many people to care for their families.

JAMES KILGORE: It’s hard to participate in family activities. And worse yet, if you have a family emergency, I think it’s particularly difficult for mothers and for parents who might be responsible for a small child. That child might spike a fever. You’re on a monitor. You have to phone to get permission to go to the hospital.

CATE TURNER: The restrictions on movement imposed by monitors come at the cost of individuals’ sense of their own freedom.

JAMES KILGORE: In most instances, you don’t really have any rights or entitlements when you’re on an electronic monitor. Even when you’re in prison, you have entitlements. You’re entitled to so many hours of visiting a week, so many hours of law library a week, and so forth. Now I know from my own personal experience those rights and entitlements are not always respected, but they give you a grounds to contest. However, with electronic monitoring, typically you don’t get anything like that.

CATE TURNER: And when electronic monitoring devices are used pretrial, all of these restrictions are imposed without a court ever determining whether someone has actually committed a crime.

NICOLE MUNDELL: We just don’t think that electronic monitoring should be imposed on individuals who are presumed innocent. If you’re innocent, then you should be treated as an innocent person until proven guilty.

CATE TURNER: In many jurisdictions including Baltimore City, these social, psychological, and economic challenges are not the only costs that come along with electronic monitoring. Many defendants have to pay steep fees for electronic monitoring devices. While the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services owns electronic monitoring devices that come without fees for defendants, getting one is a lengthy process and they can only be used by people awaiting trial for certain specific crimes.

The alternative is for a defendant to contract with a private electronic monitoring company for home detention. When defendants sign these contracts with a private company, they are often required first to make a down payment, then follow up with daily fees for using the device until their court date.

MARIANNE LIMA: It’s typically anywhere… I’ve seen from $9 to $13 a day just to have the constant monitoring and the rental of the equipment.

CATE TURNER: For many, these prices are prohibitive, especially in cases when a court date is pushed back. Some defendants go into crushing debt to make payments to electronic monitoring contractors, as often happens in systems with cash bail.

NICOLE MUNDELL: And so you take into account an individual cannot get access to a job because he or she has electronic monitoring, but then there’s a cost to be on the monitor. So how do you think folks are going to be able to pay for this?

CATE TURNER: Just as in the case of money bail, people can be punished with jail time for being unable to make payments.

MARIANNE LIMA: If you are unable to make that payment, it’s technically a violation of your contract. And if you’re on private home monitoring, they will ask the court to issue a warrant to rescind your pretrial release.

CATE TURNER: And electronic monitoring device fees, like cash bail, unfairly affect people living in poverty.

MARIANNE LIMA: I think a lot of us have felt that it is now almost a supplement to the monetary bond system that we are trying to get rid of, simply because it all depends on whether or not this client can afford these services at this point.

NICOLE MUNDELL: These fees are what we describe as the criminalization of poverty. You continue to penalize individuals who are living in poverty.

CATE TURNER: Like many other facets of mass incarceration, electronic monitoring also disproportionately harms communities of color.

JAMES KILGORE: And of course, it’s very racialized. Although the data we have on it is limited, the experience of people who have been incarcerated on an electronic monitor tell us that it disproportionately targets black people; it disproportionately targets immigrants of color and youth of color.

CATE TURNER: ICE uses electronic monitors from BI, the largest electronic monitoring device manufacturer in the United States and the same company that supplies monitors to Baltimore City in order to track immigrants. Unsealed search warrants show that immigration authorities use data from ankle monitors to target the rates that ravaged seven Mississippi food processing plants in August. Some groups here in Baltimore are working on alternatives to the city’s electronic monitoring practices. Organizations like Out For Justice support people under pretrial electronic monitoring, providing them with resources in a restorative justice framework.

NICOLE MUNDELL: We do our very best to get those individuals access to educational opportunities, job opportunities, connecting back with their families whether we arrange some type of mediation with the family and the person. Because we understand how electronic monitoring can make one’s life very difficult. We just try to make sure that we eliminate whatever barriers that they are facing to get access to community resources as we can.

CATE TURNER: Writers like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, are pushing back against newer forms of incarceration, including the use of electronic monitoring, as 21st century extensions of mass incarceration. And organizations like Challenging Incarceration are working to end the use of electronic monitoring through legislation.

JAMES KILGORE: So we want to reduce those harms, we want to introduce entitlements. And so in order to achieve this, we developed a set of guidelines for respecting the rights of people who are on electronic monitors. You can get those off of the website of the campaign, which is mediajustice.org

CATE TURNER: As surveillance technology develops, groups like these aim to end mass incarceration rather than just changing its tools. For The Real News, this is Cate Turner.