Would You Like An Ankle Bracelet With That? Winners and Losers in Electronic Monitoring

Would You Like An Ankle Bracelet With That? Winners and Losers in Electronic Monitoring

Ankle bracelets are almost fashionable these days. Martha Stewart wore one on her television show. Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton may have converted them into a rite of passage for inebriated starlets. In fact, Chanel’s 2008 spring show featured ankle pouches shaped like Lindsay’s bracelet in bright yellow, prompting outrage from a few law-and-order-oriented fashionistas.

But ankle bracelets are not about glamour. I spent a year on an ankle bracelet as a condition of my parole. For me and for most of the 150,000 to 200,000 people who go through each day with this technology strapped to their ankles, the media portrayals of electronic monitoring (“EM” as researchers and some parole officers call it) fail to resonate. Even further off the mark are claims from commercial promoters and policy analysts, such as UCLA’s Mark Kleiman, who assure us that with EM “you can fully punish him [a convicted person] for what he did in the past and prevent him from what he might do in the future—without paying his room and board.” Kleiman and others see electronic monitoring as a sort of panacea for the problems in our prison system—a low-cost, technologically smart way to ameliorate state budget crises, ensure public safety, and give “criminals” a chance to put their life back together. This marketing talk makes it all sound like that unattainable cliché—a win-win situation.

I’m at least in agreement with half of that win-win scenario. An increase in the use of EM will produce some winners. Let’s take, for example, BI Incorporated, the largest provider of ankle bracelets and monitoring programs in the United States. Founded in the late 1970s and recently bought out by private-prison powerhouse the GEO Group, this Colorado-based firm has contracts with some nine hundred law enforcement and corrections agencies across the country. In 2009, BI signed a five-year contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for $372 million to provide ankle bracelets for 27,000 people awaiting immigration hearings. Clearly, a winner in this game.

What I’m not so sure about is the other side of the equation, those who actually walk around with that black box on their leg, apart from the aforementioned stars. For Paris and Lindsay, GPS jewelry provides a get-out-of-jail-free ticket, not counting the lawyers’ fees, of course. But those are the rich and famous. They’re different from the rest of us—they have more money.

For those of us of lesser means, a simplistic and not totally wrong assessment would be that being on the electronic tether is still much better than being in a cell. Having spent six-and-a-half years living in a concrete and steel box, I agree. The problem is, as with most things in the criminal justice system these days, it’s just not that simple, and nothing is win-win.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the case of people on parole. Before EM, people on parole had relative f...

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