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Three people tell how ankle monitoring devices fail, harm and stigmatize | News and Comments

In 2020, as the world grappled with the emergence of COVID-19, jails and prisons became hotspots for outbreaks. Seeking to slow the spread of the disease, and under threat of litigation, some jurisdictions have begun looking for alternatives to incarceration, turning to electronic monitoring as a solution.

Electronic monitoring typically uses GPS tracking systems in devices called anklets, ankle shackles, or tethers to record the location of their wearers. This includes people awaiting trial, on probation and parole, and facing immigration proceedings. Jurisdictions use this tracking technology to limit how long a person can stay outside and where they can go. Although COVID-19 created an even larger market for electronic surveillance, government use of electronic surveillance was already on the rise. From 2005 to 2015, the number of active electronic monitors in use increased by 140%.

Jurisdictional decisions to standardize this technology are troubling for several reasons. Studies show that guards are blatantly falling short of their stated goals of ensuring court attendance, protecting public safety and advancing rehabilitation. Instead, electronic surveillance expands mass incarceration, operating as a form of digital incarceration known as e-carceration, and driving people into physical jails and jails for minor technical violations, charging malfunctions and false alarms.

Electronic surveillance also exacerbates systemic inequalities based on race, class and disability. For example, in Detroit, blacks are twice as likely as whites to be electronically monitored. Depending on the jurisdiction, shipping costs for these monitors range from $3 to $35 per day, often in addition to initial installation costs, which can range from $100 to $200. The high fees add up and can add up to hundreds of dollars a month, overburdening households already dealing with the return of incarcerated loved ones. Additionally, research shows that stigma, social isolation, and stress from surveillance exacerbate carrier depression and anxiety.

On September 29, the ACLU released Rethinking Electronic Monitoring: A Harm Reduction Guide, which calls on jurisdictions to replace electronic monitoring with less restrictive and more effective measures, such as court reminders and transportation assistance. The report also describes ways in which jurisdictions can mitigate the harms of surveillance in accordance with the principles of due process and fairness. We urge jurisdictions to:

  • Strictly limit the use of electronic monitoring
  • Provide adequate notice and explanation of monitoring requirements
  • Standardize appeal, review and revocation procedures
  • Ensure access to a lawyer
  • Eliminate discrimination based on wealth and housing status
  • Reasonably accommodate people with disabilities
  • Develop reasonable movement and expansion standards
  • Provide credit for time spent under electronic monitoring
  • Ensure confidentiality and data protection
  • Ensure adequate data collection and transparency

You can read the full report here. Defense attorneys can view our resource with advice on challenging pre-trial electronic surveillance here. Below, three people share their stories of sustainable electronic surveillance.


Credit: Michael Tafolla

Michael Tafolla

Michael Tafolla is a 42 year old man from Chicago, Illinois. After serving 20 years in prison, he was released with an electronic monitor as a mandatory supervised release condition.

When I was first released on an ankle monitor in July 2018, I was approved for three days of movement, four hours a day, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. After a while, I got an internship at my university and a full-time job in a temp agency. But it was incredibly difficult to adjust my approved movement hours. I called my parole officer and they told me I had to choose between the internship or working with the temp agency. They said I was overdoing it. I had panic attacks because of it. I try to go to school. I try to work. I don’t understand the problem. Are you telling me that I’m doing too much? Am I doing too much of what I’m supposed to do? You go out and you think you are free and you are going to be able to enjoy life, but now doing the most basic and necessary things like work and school becomes the most complicated.

You go out and you think you are free and you are going to be able to enjoy life, but now doing the most basic and necessary things like work and school becomes the most complicated.

I ended up increasing my movement hours, but between internship, school, and working at the temp agency, I didn’t have time to do anything else. I couldn’t buy soap, I couldn’t buy clothes. I just did 20 years in prison, but I couldn’t go visit my parents. They had physical limitations and lived far away, it was too hard for them to come see me. Every time I asked for an extra move, the parole officer refused me. Their view was that I shouldn’t be out of the house too often, no matter what I was doing. I was like, “why am I still being punished?”

With this lack of movement, you unintentionally put a person in a worse situation. In my experience, in this county, it is almost impossible to extend the movement time for anything, even to go to the hospital. I never mean to say being locked up is better than being home, but you don’t let people work or do anything. That’s why a lot of people turn off their screens, because they can’t take it anymore. It just gets too hard.

A photo of Shannan Davis.

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Shannan Davis

Shannan Davis is a 43-year-old Native American who is a member of the Chippewa Sioux Tribe in Michigan. She was temporarily released from prison to a treatment center on the condition that she wear an ankle monitor.

Being on the monitor was very stressful. It’s a long cord that wraps around my leg and twists into knots around me. The sheriff’s department had to come the other day and fix the bracelet because it was too loose. Now it’s too tight. When I walk, my muscles contract and I almost feel like they are going to break. I’m afraid to ask them to loosen it again because every time I call they give me an attitude. They have their comments on “You shouldn’t take drugs and you shouldn’t break the law”. I understand. But if you can’t understand someone else’s way of life, then you shouldn’t be doing the job you’re doing. These people are meant to protect and serve and they are just obnoxious.

At the convalescent home, I am not allowed to go out because of a court order. I can’t go on group outings with the other girls staying here. I’m practically locked up in this house.

Electronic surveillance makes it very difficult for us to be where we need to be, to get the tools we need to survive in society.

I’m not allowed to go to the store with the rest of the house. I am not allowed to walk on the road for exercise. There are always staff with the girls so we are not unsupervised but due to the way my link is worded I am not allowed to participate.

I can’t afford the monitor either. It’s $105 a week for this thing, and my mom pays for it. Electronic surveillance makes it very difficult for us to be where we need to be, to get the tools we need to survive in society. Like the other day when I came back from the doctor, all three lights on the monitor were going off and it lasted two to three hours. I couldn’t reach anyone. The thing goes off all day. It’s stressful because I think they’re going to come and get me and arrest me.

Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown is 34 years old and lives in Maricopa County, Arizona. He was placed on an ankle monitor pending trial. Due to court delays, Matthew has been wearing an ankle monitor for 3 years with no ability to remove the monitor.

Since being under electronic surveillance, I have lost contact with my family. My father and my grandparents live in Mexico. Most of our family events are in Mexico, but I can’t go there. I missed my sister’s wedding, my nephews’ birthdays. I don’t see my dad or my grandparents unless they come to Arizona. I try to use FaceTime, but they are not good with technology. It really disconnected me.

The more I am disconnected from people, the more it is mentally difficult for me; the worse I feel. When you’re under electronic surveillance, they say you’re free, but you’re actually imprisoned. It’s about 100 degrees six months a year in Arizona.

The more I am disconnected from people, the more it is mentally difficult for me; the worse I feel.

I can’t wear pants, so everyone sees the bracelet. Taking my nephew to a bouncy house or going to the gym, I’m automatically judged. Moms keep kids away. You just feel bad.

I’m also worried about the money. Until my case is solved, I don’t have to pay for the monitor, but I’m afraid of the possible price. Each monitor unit costs $1,740. I’ve probably done a dozen or more water damages from my job as a boat captain. It wasn’t me having fun, it was me doing my job. There is also a daily charge, but I don’t know how much it is. The case officer said, “You’re approaching 3 years, it’s going to be very expensive.” Even if it’s $10 a day, I would pay $10,000 after 3 years. I don’t know when they will remove the monitor. Every day is more than I have to pay. They can force someone to plead guilty because you owe a lot of money.

If I didn’t have the financial means and the support, I would have already pleaded guilty. I can only imagine how many people do this. People are losing their jobs because of electronic surveillance and they can’t afford their house, their family or their children. It’s a domino effect.