A blog series on the excessive, punitive, and discriminatory use of electronic monitoring in the criminal legal system

Coco Davis: They Monitored Her Uncle After He Had Died

By James Kilgore

Today Coco Davis is a published author and leading activist fighting against mass incarceration in the Midwest, especially its impact on women and girls. She founded the Talk To Me Foundation and currently serves as CEO, was a founder of the Stop the Violence program in Chicago — where she is a Vice President — and formed the Midwest Chapter of the National Council of Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. Coco had a long journey to get to this point. She spent 13.5 years in federal prison, a victim of mandatory minimum sentencing and the “War on Drugs.” Apart from being behind bars, Coco’s journey has intersected repeatedly with electronic monitoring and house arrest. Her time in prison was bookended by 22 months on electronic monitoring while she awaited trial in 1999 and several months on house arrest after her release from prison in 2013.

While she was waiting for trial she was not allowed out of the house for nine months. “I felt like I was suffocating…my privacy being taken. I was devastated,” she says. Even when she stayed in the house she felt vulnerable. One time when the power to her house went out during a storm, it switched off the monitor. This prompted a summons back to court. When she told the judge the signal was lost because of a power failure, he apparently thought she was lying. He forced her to go to the power company and get a letter verifying the power outage.

“This system is designed to divide and break you down,” she said. “They don’t care. They want to be able to monitor you…it serves no purpose.”

She has a special contempt for monitoring and house arrest post-incarceration, “Why do you have to endure all this pain, especially mothers who have left kids behind? I don’t wanna see any mother on this monitor.”

As a mother of three children, Coco has a particular frustration with how EM and house arrest impacted her ability to be a parent. One time her son got into a fight at school and was taken to the emergency room. She called her electronic monitoring supervisor to seek permission to go to the hospital. No one picked up the phone. She took a risk and went to the hospital anyway. Fortunately, she avoided re-arrest by going to the school and getting proof that her son had been taken to the hospital.

Once she was off the house arrest, she still wasn’t done with the monitor. Coco related to us the story of her uncle who in 2014 was released from prison after serving 24 years for a murder “he did not commit.” He was placed on electronic monitoring. Not long after his release he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away within 60 days.

Coco contends that part of the reason for his rapid deterioration was the difficulty he had in getting movement from his house to go to his treatments. But the drama of the monitor only just began with his death. When the family called the Department of Corrections to come and cut the device off her uncle, Coco said they refused to come. The hospital authorities refused to cut it off without permission from the Department of Corrections and told Coco that if she cut it off, she would be liable for the replacement costs of the monitor. Also, since she was still on parole, cutting it off could have landed her back in prison. So the funeral parlor employees came and took the body with the shackle still on his leg. They also declined to remove the shackle.

Her uncle’s corpse sat in the morgue for nearly a month before the authorities came to remove the device. Even in death, her uncle was being tracked.

Listen to Coco Davis’ story about her uncle and electronic monitoring.

After this experience, Coco understands why a number of people she has met actually prefer prison to home confinement. She spoke to one young man who told her because of the burden and heartache the monitor put on his family he was made to feel “less of a man.” He said the mother of his child would look at him and he could feel her thinking “wow, I looked after you all that time and now I gotta look after you still.”

Davis had her own ambivalence about being on the monitor. In prison, life was predictable. During her thirteen and a half years she had built up some skills and a routine. “I had a good job in prison,” she says. “Leave work, to go law library, write novels, do online classes. Every officer knew where Davis was going.” It was different when she got home. “Now they started telling me when I get home all the things I can’t do. I was scared. Because if I mess up one time, they’re gonna send me right back to prison,” she recalls. In the end she said she accepted the monitor and “had to follow all the rules and regulations for my children, because they couldn’t bear to be without their mother again.”

“This story about electronic monitoring can go on and on and on,” she added. “It took a toll on me… It’s like modern day slavery. They keep tabs on you when you’re in prison. Then they keep tabs on you in a halfway house. When you finish halfway house, then they gotta monitor you. So therefore you’re not free. You’ll never be free.” In the case of her uncle they even monitored him for a month, days after he had passed.

Coco remains determined to resist: “Only thing that we can do is to keep making the world know about this electronic monitoring. It’s crazy. I don’t think anyone after serving time in prison or a penitentiary should be placed on this monitor. What is it solving? I think they should do away with this whole electronic monitoring system.”

Share your own stories about electronic monitoring with @mediajustice on Twitter using #NoDigitalPrisons.

This is part three in a five part series titled #NoDigitalPrisons. Read part one and part two. Learn more about the issue here.