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Is electronic monitoring turning homes into “digital prisons”?

Electronic monitoring in theory provides an alternative to pretrial detention, but is the rise of “e-incarceration” a good thing?Megan Rose Dickey, “Bail Reform’s Complex Relationship with Tech,” TechCrunch, May 20, 2018. An estimated 300,000 people in the United States—some convicted, some awaiting trial—are currently wearing ankle monitors as part of community supervision plans that permit them to remain at home.James Kilgore, “Reflections on A Research Agenda for Electronic Monitoring in the United States,” paper presented to the 9th European Electronic Monitoring Conference “Electronic Monitoring, Probation and Human Rights,” Frankfurt, Germany (2014), 8.

Proponents say that while monitoring may seem invasive, it’s better than incarceration—and even opponents agree.Michelle Alexander, “The Newest Jim Crow,” New York Times, November 8, 2018. But “better than incarceration” is a low bar, and the monitors aren’t infallible: the GPS devices can provide inaccurate data, landing people back in jail even though they haven’t actually violated the terms of their release.Dickey, “Bail Reform’s Complex Relationship with Tech,” 2018. And some have warned that tools like ankle shackles may constitute a different kind of jail.Alexander, “The Newest Jim Crow,” 2018. There is not that much difference, they argue, between being restricted to a cell and being restricted to one city block, or just one house.Alexander, “The Newest Jim Crow,” 2018.

Electronic monitoring also often comes with a cost to the wearer. Costs for the devices range from $5 to $25 a day, one that could rival—or even exceed—the cost of money bail.James Kilgore and Emmett Sanders, “Ankle Monitors Aren’t Humane. They’re Another Kind of Jail,” Wired, August 4, 2018. In states like Michigan, some people are required to wear—and pay for—monitors for life.James Kilgore and Emmett Sanders, “Ankle Monitors Aren’t Humane. They’re Another Kind of Jail,” Wired, August 4, 2018. Reformers like Essie Justice Group’s Gina Clayton-Johnson see monitors as “another opportunity to make money off of families. Like, ‘let this person out, but have them . . . pay for an ankle shackle or bracelet and GPS monitoring.’”Dickey, “Bail Reform’s Complex Relationship with Tech,” 2018. A Center for Media Justice study found that just four corporations—including one of the largest private prison companies—provide electronic monitoring in some 30 states, with a combined annual revenue of more than $200 million just for e-monitoring.James Kilgore, Emmett Sanders, and Myaisha Hayes, No More Shackles: Why We Must End the Use of Electronic Monitors for People on Parole (Oakland, CA: Center for Media Justice, 2018), 12.