Homeward Bound

With electronic home monitoring, the prisoner pays for her cell and becomes her own prison guard

SITTING beside a public defender in the defendant’s chair is the loneliest place in the world. There is no one to help you but this stranger. Your entire future is wrapped up into a series of charges and pleas while you remain voiceless. The most disarming part is not even the judgment, but the banality of it all: the rote indifference as the judge casually consigns you to a new world. I was elated to discover that the new world I was entering would be in many ways familiar to my own. I didn’t have to go to jail. Instead, I could serve my six-month sentence through home monitoring.

The only real jail time I served was when I was sent to county for a day, along with other inmates being processed for booking. Several were going in for extended sentences, while we lucky few came only to have our ankle monitors fit to our legs. A long, boring day in a cell with two short-term friends re-emphasized to me the advantages of home monitoring. They told me harrowing tales of their experiences inside the facility and I was being spared those more intense horrors. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the monitoring machine being affixed to my leg like a manacle was not lost on me. The officer attaching it maintained no illusions either. He explained that home monitoring was seen as preferable to incarceration because the inmate pays all the costs of their imprisonment. In addition to paying for my supervisor, I still had to feed and house myself.

To be processed through the carceral system is to be simultaneously exposed to the full power of American institutions and the terrifying reality of their purpose. The people you meet have been continuously “served” by state and social institutions to their detriment. This population has been “let down” by schools, social welfare programs, child protection systems, and by the capitalist structure of our economy and society. Each of these institutions is a station in a single structure, all oriented toward producing compliant individuals invested in the health and propagation of the structure. These pre-carceral institutions, of course, do not exist to truly support people but to inflict sufficient discipline on them to ensure they participate in a capitalist society: hold a job, pay rent, have children. However, these systems also work to separate out those who refuse or are incapable of “proper” participation in the economy. When people resist the processing, they must be deposited somewhere: Hence, the carceral system, where they face two outcomes. They will either finally bend to the structure’s will or become an object lesson to assure the cooperation of others.

The inner workings of carceral institutions remain opaque to outsiders by design. But as I worked my way through probation appointments, home monitoring, brief periods of incarceration and court dates, the system became increasingly transparent. Every new contact with the system exposed me to new people: those who had spent their lives in foster homes, or their teenage years in juvenile hall, or had never graduated high school; people whose parents had been gang members and junkies and who could not escape the overwhelming gravity of those lifestyles; a vast, diverse group unified in only one way–their inability to escape the system that waited unavoidably at the end of their journey.

I was not a child of wealth, but I come from an upwardly mobile working-class background. In my grandparents’ generation my family were farm workers, either Okies migrating from the Dust Bowl or Mexicans migrating to the U.S. My parents’ generation did better, raising my generation in relative comfort and security. I had visited incarcerated relatives when I was young, but their experience had seemed very distant to me, and the visits had ended by the time I was a teenager. A benefit of the privilege I had accumulated was that jail never really seemed possible. Jail and its attendant systems were frightening, far-off places–the setting for movies or TV shows. When the less fortunate branches of the family saw their members go off to jail, my immediate family would tsk-tsk their failure and thank God that their children were better.

Until we weren’t. Working at a retail establishment, I stole thousands of dollars worth of cash and merchandise, a crime I still can’t quite understand. I foolishly admitted to it in an attempt to make things right with my employer, who had promised not to prosecute if I cooperated and paid them back. Predictably, they promptly prosecuted me, and the district attorney vigorously pushed for the harshest sentence. Every new court date brought me together with people already deeply integrated in the system. They counseled me on how to endure county jail and ways to stay safe. My advisers were so accustomed to the intrusion of the disciplinary apparatus into their lives that they no longer questioned it. They marched forward to be processed because it was so familiar to them and their families. They had developed strategies to endure it but had no way to avoid it.

Ultimately, my status as a first-time offender led to a sentence they saw as lenient: 180 days in county jail. Alongside the relief of only having to give up six months to a correctional facility, I was seized by terror. But the court advised me that I was eligible for home monitoring, if I could afford it. When the price (about $400 dollars a month) came up, my parents agreed to help me. I was blissfully unaware that prison had just colonized my home and life. While I was not going to prison, the prison system was still coming to me.

The first step in entering a home monitoring program is to meet with your probation officer and an official in charge of the electronic system. The tone of these meetings was uniformly one of scorn, scolding, and thinly veiled contempt. I was the subject of constant skepticism and mistrust, accused of doing anything they could think of to invent. The probation officers interrogated me about gang affiliations and drug habits, questioning everything about my life and all my associations. The monitoring company, meanwhile, required automatic withdrawals to make certain they would have their money, and spent most of their time threatening me with “real jail” if I failed to adhere to their rules.

Home monitoring is effectively house arrest, although they use diplomatic euphemisms for everything. I was allowed to work, but I had to diligently document every time I left the vicinity of my monitoring hardware. There were no other valid reasons to leave the house, and I was due for weekly appointments to review my activity. Each week, I had to answer a series of questions about every minute of deviation from my listed time away from home; this was a part of the punishment. At no time was I allowed or offered chances to work at rehabilitation. It was a quiet, grinding punishment.

Confining a young man of 21 to his parents’ home sounds like the premise of a psychological experiment, and I always felt under the microscope, unable to escape from my parents or my probation officer. My parents’ shame hovered over our home and between us every time I was seen with my monitor. While I knew how much worse actual jail time would have been, the tantalizing nearness of life was its own form of psychological torture. The most effective and important part of the justice system is the psychological component; this is the piece that requires guards and officials to constantly reinforce the unworthiness of the inmate. For discipline to reinforce power, it must legitimize itself and disparage the prisoner as a failed member of society. Though I was not in jail, this component remained. I acquiesced to the power, I assisted in maligning inmates by hiding my ankle monitor and growing evasive about the limitations on my freedom when others asked. To escape prison, I submitted to an alternative punishment that outsourced not only the housing and upkeep of the inmate but the shaming as well.

When discussing prison reform or the nature of the justice system, home monitoring is seen as a benevolent alternative to prison; in reality it is an insidious and ingenious way to blackmail people into paying for their own incarceration. The shame and fear of being imprisoned drives us to participate but also bars us from discussions about prison reform. We occupy a liminal space in the wider punishment apparatus; we feel as though we shouldn’t complain and often we do not speak of our experiences. The fact that we have avoided prison compels us to not speak, lest we draw attention to our status as convicts–but there are hundreds of thousands of us.

My experience is not unique. A 2016 Pew Research study showed that home electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration had increased by nearly 140 percent from 2005 to 2015. Over 125,000 people nationwide were participating in an electronic monitoring program in 2015. Of course, in a nation where nearly 7 million people are in prison, jail, on probation or parole, this two percent can easily disappear into the margins.

Like the prison system it abets, home monitoring functions because few people question its efficacy or necessity. Despite increasing rates of use, there is no data or research that conclusively indicates that home monitoring reduces crime or recidivism. A study conducted by criminology professor Marc Renzema and public health researcher Evan Mayo-Wilson determined that not enough research was being done regarding home monitoring and found that applications of electronic monitoring as a tool for reducing crime were “not supported by existing data.”

A study of electronic monitoring by the Florida State University Center of Criminology and Public Policy Research could cite only the monitoring program administrators to support the program’s effectiveness. They simultaneously acknowledged what I experienced: that monitoring status and equipment “does have negative consequences for offenders’ families, employment opportunities, and adjustment in the community.”

The absence of concrete evidence for how home monitoring improves the lives of either prisoners or their community is telling. Like the prison system, it looms over its subjects as an unquestioned master and its presence is uncritically accepted. Yet the population under the supervision of this system continues to expand and the monitoring is getting more sophisticated along with it. New technologies using GPS, cell phones, and cloud-based data are making it easier for monitoring services to be increasingly invasive and restrictive. Companies specializing in home monitoring herald these new advances in journals catering to law enforcement and justice system clientele already invested in these programs. Already the usual suspects are getting involved in this new venture: private prison companies are among the biggest current investors in home monitoring companies, spending billions of dollars diversifying their portfolio of carceral investments. One of these companies, GEO Group, “spent $2.5 million in 2014 on lobbying, in part for its electronic monitoring efforts.”

There are millions of people who never go to prison but are still subject to its discipline. These alternative forms of discipline are positioned as a form of mercy from the state, and their relative invisibility serves to obscure the true extent of the disciplinary apparatus. But any discussion of abolition must address this expanding tentacle of the carceral system.

Too many people are willing to disappear into the world of electronic monitoring, glad to quietly avoid the stigma of a prison sentence. They–we–are unwittingly allowing this new frontier in incarceration to expand into a diffuse and difficult-to-track pattern. Only by making this process visible can we begin to undermine it.