Everyone is talking about how to end mass incarceration: the right, the left, presidential candidates, Black Lives Matter activists. But what comes after a prison-centric society? Some, including business interests that would profit from such a shift, think GPS bracelets are a sound alternative to locking people in physical cages. But is electronic monitoring really so different from prison?
Not according to the Center for Media Justice and James Kilgore, respectively publisher and author of a 2015 report: “Electronic Monitoring is Not the Answer: Critical Reflections on a Flawed Alternative.”
Kilgore told the Daily Beast that while wearing an ankle bracelet is better than being in prison, we shouldn’t look to GPS monitoring to solve the problems in our criminal punishment system. “You can be sent back to prison for getting back to your house five minutes late when the bus breaks down,” Kilgore said, naming just one of many strict release conditions that can make ankle bracelets seem like electronic recidivism devices.
Putting people on electronic leashes instead of in jails or prisons is problematic for many reasons. Electronic monitoring shifts the burden of paying for incarceration onto the individual and the family, away from the state. The conditions imposed on people wearing bracelets are often so strict that people soon go back to prison for violations that have nothing to do with whether someone is a danger to the community—or they never leave their homes because they are terrified of committing such a violation, even accidentally. Bracelets act as a sort of scarlet letter, signifying to people in the community that the wearer may not be a trustworthy employee or neighbor.
And because the terms and conditions of electronic monitoring punishments can be so severe, sentencing people to wear ankle bracelets in place of serving prison sentences may actually increase the number of people in prison. That’s because, for example, a judge may sentence someone to electronic monitoring that later, because of impossibly strict conditions, leads to incarceration, when community service would have been a viable alternative sentence in the first place.
Electronic monitoring also produces huge quantities of sensitive information about people required to wear the devices everywhere they go, and the market that governs the technology companies is nearly entirely unregulated. As the Intercept reported in late 2015, companies that profit off of the prison industrial complex are historically not the best at securing sensitive information about the incarcerated people who are required to use their services. We should not trust that the huge quantities of sensitive information generated about people subjected to state control will remain secure or won’t be abused.
Thinking of ankle bracelets or other electronic monitoring as “alternatives” to prison is dangerous because these methods are cheaper than caging people, meaning the government could very easily place many more people under these systems of control without feeling the fiscal pinch.
So what should we do?
Instead of creating virtual prisons, we must rethink our entire justice system—including what constitutes a crime, and whether we want to enact vengeance or seek rehabilitation for people who commit crimes. Ending the drug war is a great start. We can and must also end mandatory minimums, radically restructure our sentencing guidelines, and take a hard look at our criminal statutes.
Ultimately, we must decrease the number of people under carceral control in the United States. If that’s the goal, electronic surveillance schemes aren’t only false alternatives—they may very well create an entirely new problem that will grind on for decades until the country finally wakes up to realize its mistake. By that point, because GPS bracelets are so much cheaper for the state than prisons, we may all be wearing them.