The Dangers of America’s Expanding ‘Digital Prison’

Print More
electronic monitor

Photo by INM2855 via Flickr

On any day of the year, more than 200,000 Americans are wearing electronic ankle monitors that allow courts, police or corrections authorities to track their movements as a condition of their release from prison.

Many observers consider these digital devices a “win-win”: they allow the formerly incarcerated (and sometimes those awaiting trial) to escape confinement while reducing prison and jail populations; and they protect public safety by lowering the chances of future criminal behavior.

However, a new study in the Cardozo Law Review argues that in fact they are a form of “digital prison” that not only makes it harder for formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully reintegrate into civil society; they may even increase the odds that they will end up back behind bars.

The growing use of GPS electronic surveillance, or “e-carceration,” threatens to produce a “subgroup of surveilees who are increasingly divorced from the civic life of their community, divorced from opportunity for social mobilization, and divorced from political and educational life and opportunities,” writes Chaz Arnett, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Arnett added that the most damaging impact of digital monitoring is felt by those whose “social marginalization” has already landed them inside the criminal justice system, such as unemployed or traumatized African-American men—thereby perpetuating the disproportionate effects of the system on the poor and people of color.

“An e-carceration regime only acts to further one of the greatest harms of mass incarceration, the entrenchment of race and class subordination, and abandons genuine attempts at rehabilitation and reintegration,” he wrote.

According to Arnett, “there is already anecdotal evidence that populations disproportionately subjected to electronic surveillance are overwhelmingly black, brown and poor.”

GPS monitoring, which can be imposed for a lifetime on individuals such as sex offenders, effectively thwarts anyone from developing the confidence and mobility that can help secure employment—which most experts consider the principal passport to successful reentry.

“A person’s connection to their community, through employment, family ties, religious practices and social activities, is one of the strongest protectors against criminal justice contact, (but) the use of electronic monitoring acts to strain and sever those crucial ties,” Arnett wrote.

“The sad irony of electronic monitoring is that it divorces individuals from the very things they need for success,”

In a more ominous note, Arnett cited statistics showing that private firms are beginning to invest heavily in digital surveillance technology—specifically many of the companies who were once the leading developers of private prisons—creating a vested financial interest in subjecting more individuals to monitoring, whether it promotes public safety or not.

Individuals can be charged anywhere from $10 to $40 a day for using the ankle bracelets—after paying hefty initial fees—offering the possibility of a new bonanza to firms who are leaving  the privatized prison industry because of growing opposition from state governments.

GEO Group, one of the largest for-profit prison operators, has invested more than $450 million in electronic monitoring and alcohol monitoring-related businesses between 2011-2015, according to figures cited by Arnett.

It Started with Spiderman

Electronic monitoring as a form of judicial control was first introduced by a New Mexico judge in the 1980s after he was inspired by an episode in a comic book, in which a villain attached a tracking device to Spiderman to control him from afar. Since that somewhat bizarre beginning, ankle devices are now deployed in all 50 states.

Between 2005-2015, the number in use around the country rose by 140 percent, and the devices are now used now in the juvenile justice system as well as adult community supervision—and by federal immigration authorities.

Ironically, many supporters of justice reform have welcomed their use as a way of reducing prison populations, citing some studies that show they have cut recidivism.

Arnett, noting that other studies suggest the technology has no effect on recidivism, suggested advocates who believe that are deluding themselves.

Electronic surveillance technology, he argued, is an extension of the strategy of “punitive control” that governs the U.S. justice system, and represents a further step away from the rehabilitative goals espoused by reformers.

“With relatively little regulation, and almost no public awareness of the harms they may cause, electronic surveillance systems envelop the formerly incarcerated in an invisible network of control that is potentially even more insidious than the current probation and parole system,“ Arnett wrote.

Worse, the systems are also subject to glitches and mismanagement that in effect leave individuals wearing the bracelets “set up to fail,” he added.

Ankle Monitor in a Morgue

He offered some poignant examples. An Illinois man who developed cancer shortly after he was released from prison under electronic monitoring kept missing his appointments with the doctor because his family could not get timely permission to leave home. He died in hospital with the ankle monitor attached to his leg, and his corpse sat in the morgue awaiting cremation for weeks before a corrections supervisor came to remove the device from his body.

In another case, a Wisconsin man named Cody McCormick who was placed on electronic monitoring kept experiencing poor satellite reception at his home, which apparently led authorities to believe he had turned the system off. When police came to his home and found him exactly where he was supposed to be, he was still placed under arrest and jailed for three days.

Nearly a year later, McCormick was arrested again when the ankle bracelet located him erroneously at a location where he was forbidden to be, even though he had only driven past it.

While Arnett stops short of explicitly calling for a phase-out of the ankle bracelets, he argues that the apparent lack of interest so far in regulating their use—along with court rulings rejecting claims that they were a violation of Constitutional guarantees of privacy—should make authorities focus on alternatives such as community-based treatment and supervision.

“If part of righting the wrongs of mass incarceration…involves seriously committing to decarceration efforts, then strategies to enable decarceration must be shrewdly examined and critiqued to ensure that we are not repeating the same mistakes,” he wrote.

“A guiding question that must remain at the forefront of our minds is whether the rise of an e-carceration regime presents a solution to, or an expansion of, the harm of mass incarceration.”

The full study can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report.

2 thoughts on “The Dangers of America’s Expanding ‘Digital Prison’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *