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

Is an Ankle Monitor Better than Prison?

by Emmett Sanders

I was incarcerated for more than twenty-two years, from the age of eighteen until I was forty-one years old. Upon my release, I found myself with a shackle strapped to my ankle. Shortly after my release about twenty months ago, I began working with Challenging E-Carceration to try to push back against this form of incarceration.

While there is no doubt that most people would rather be on the monitor than be in a brick and mortar prison, we should not ignore that it absolutely is a form of incarceration. We need only look at the fact that those who cut off their shackle or tamper with it are charged with felony escape. Critically impacted people may prefer an open air prison over a concrete one, similar to how people of color may prefer the denial of civil rights over slavery, but neither scenario makes it just. Neither is an acceptable outcome.

We should take great care not to assume that these are the only two options here. This is a false binary, an either/or scenario that exists because we cannot envision other alternatives. The same false binary was used to support mass incarceration itself: Either we incarcerate people at high rates for extended periods of time or we allow crime to flourish.

The problem here is that this scenario does not take into account things like increasing resources, building community, reducing poverty, creating employment and educational opportunities, expanding restorative justice and more. In the same vein, there are alternatives to incarceration that do not include electronic monitoring (EM). People are paroled and released pretrial without the onus of EM. Additionally, EM didn’t always exist. It shouldn’t be that difficult for us to envision ways to exist without it.

While there is no doubt that most people would rather be on the monitor than be in a brick and mortar prison, we should not ignore that it absolutely is a form of incarceration.

Though I chose to navigate EM myself, I know a number of people imprisoned in Illinois who opted to self-violate parole rather than be subjected to electronic monitoring and the conditions that come with it. In Illinois, violating parole in this way means you do half of your parole time in prison before being released without conditions. Which means there are some who view EM as such an insurmountable obstacle to reconstructing their lives that they prefer to remain in a cell instead—so that they can be fully done with the criminal legal system once they’ve completed their sentence.

The bleak alternative is to risk violating parole while on the monitor, which would lead them to lose any progress they had managed to make toward re-entering society. While this is not the norm, it is also not as unusual a choice as one might think. We should not presume to know peoples’ preferences, nor should we paint all critically impacted people with the same brush.

There are some who view EM as such an insurmountable obstacle to reconstructing their lives that they prefer to remain in a cell instead

Finally, selling EM as a way of keeping people from committing crimes is disingenuous. The shackle doesn’t incapacitate potential actors. It doesn’t create a force field around potential victims. It can be removed with a pair of scissors, an act which isn’t even necessary to commit a crime.

People who are a threat without EM are a threat with EM. Conversely, those who are deemed fit to be in society while wearing an ankle shackle are just as fit to be in it without an ankle shackle. I understand the structures we’re fighting against here and the necessity of compromise, but I also find that we are dangerously close to saying that some people are only human enough to be in society if they are wearing a piece of plastic.


Emmett Sanders is a formerly incarcerated researcher and writer who spent more than 22 years in Illinois prisons. His recent report, “Full Human Beings” argues for incarcerated voter enfranchisement.

Read the new #NoMoreShackles report on ending the use of electronic monitoring for people on parole and join the campaign here.

This is part of a series titled #NoDigitalPrisons. Learn more about the issue here.