Putting Freedom On The Table: A Chicago Forum on Electronic Monitoring
by Brian Dolinar
Nigel Lee was just 14 years old when he was placed on electronic monitoring (EM) and confined to his mother’s home in Chicago’s West Side. For nine months, he could only go to and from school. He couldn’t even take out the trash without setting off an alarm. When he and his mother got into an argument one day, he was unable to leave the house for fear that he would be picked up by police.
In the current attempts to reverse the harmful effects of mass incarceration, many jurisdictions are looking to implement electronic monitoring. The common belief is that EM is better than prison because it at least does not place people behind bars. But those who have actual experience wearing monitors say otherwise. They describe a significant burden to themselves and to their families.
I attended a half-day forum held on July 17th, 2018 at the University of Chicago titled, “Challenging Electronic Monitoring in Cook County.” A part of the Challenging E-Carceration campaign, it was sponsored by the Center for Media Justice, Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, Chicago Community Bond Fund, and a dozen other organizations. About 100 people attended the convening which James Kilgore, who has spearheaded the campaign, called “the first of its kind in the country…bringing together critically impacted people from various backgrounds and putting their experiences at the center of a discussion around electronic monitoring.”
There were two panels, followed by breakout sessions, that brought those impacted into conversation with lawyers, lobbyists, and community activists. Emmanuel Andre, Chicago attorney and co-founder of Circles and Ciphers, confirmed Nigel’s story about being on the monitor. “There’s an assumption when you say electronic home monitoring,” said Andre. “[But] a lot of people I represent do not have a home to go to. If they have a home to go to, that home is not their best. It’s not the first option, it’s not the second option, it’s not the third option. There’s this presumption that going home is a lot easier. What do you do when people have no home?”
I sat at a breakout session with young members of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a restorative justice hub in Chicago. These youth described how wearing an electronic monitor ostracized them from their peers. “When your friends come over, and leave,” said one young man named Marquan, “you can’t go with them.” Another young person, named Charlie, added that “you have to learn how to be with yourself.” He displayed one of his paintings, depicting himself in an empty living room with a black box attached to his leg.
Electronic monitors, what some call “ankle bracelets,” (or what others have described as “ankle shackles,”) have been around for 30 years, but their use is on the rise. On any given day, there are about 175,000 people on EM in the United States. People are often put on EM as a condition of their parole from prison, pretrial release from jail, diversion, or punishment (for example, for a DUI). Two rapidly expanding groups on EM are juveniles and immigrants. Those companies that make the devices are owned by some of the biggest prison profiteers in the industry, like private prison builder GEO Group and the phone provider Securus. These two giants of the prison industry operate EM through their subsidiaries BI and Satellite Tracking of People.
One of the panelists in Chicago, Lavette Mayes, who was bailed out of jail by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, told her story of spending 121 days on an electronic monitor. When a person is on a monitor, she said, “everyone in your life” is affected. When Lavette’s autistic child ran over to a neighbor’s house, she couldn’t chase after him. She described how there is a “constant fear of being taken back to jail.” After the power went out one night, she called in to the sheriff’s office, but was told if the power was not back on in 24 hours, she would be picked up. Lavette described the monitor as, “a noose around your neck.”
Edmund Buck, who spent ninety days on a monitor as a condition of his parole, after almost two decades behind bars in Illinois, said “it was worse than prison for me. It kind of made me feel like an animal.” For him, being in his family’s home with this device felt like he was bringing a prison into their household. He contended that it served no purpose other than to extend the control of the Department of Corrections over his life.
In recent news about the extreme nature of law enforcement control over immigrant families, through detention and separation at the US-Mexico border, there has been little mention of those being tagged and surveilled by EM technology. Fred Tsao, Senior Policy Counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), led a break out session at the forum where he emphasized that the federal government does not have the capacity to jail everyone, “so EM is an alternative.” According to the White House’s proposed budget for 2019 projects, there will be 84,000 people in some form of “alternative” detention, although there is no documentation of how many of those will be wearing electronic monitors.
As the stories of impacted people illustrates, EM does not stop the prison beast, it instead allows it to stretch its tentacles further into Black, Brown and poor communities already devastated by social abandonment.
“In the fight to end unaffordable money bail, we want to ensure that EM is not seen as an acceptable alternative,” said Irene Romulo, with the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “EM mimics the same harms of pretrial incarceration. We don’t want to see it increase.”
Those who attended the forum this July put forward a bigger vision. “Think about the third option,” said Robert Agnew, of Just Leadership USA’s Milwaukee branch. “Not jail, not EM. We want to get freedom back on the table.”
Brian Dolinar is a writer and activist in Urbana, Illinois. He is program director at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. He has taught African American studies and history at the University of Illinois. He writes about policing, prisons, and immigration. His articles have appeared in Prison Legal News, Counterpunch, and Truthout.
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