by James Kilgore, Guest Blogger |
When I was released by the California state prison system way back in 2009, I was told that, if I wanted to parole to Illinois where my family lived, I would have to be on an electronic monitor.
I thought nothing of it. Anything would be better than prison. What harm could a little black band on my leg do compared to the routine of a high-security prison in California? So, I spent a year on a monitor in Illinois as a condition of my supervised release.
The day after I landed in Illinois, the woman from the Department of Corrections (DOC) came by and strapped that thing to my leg. Then, my parole agent phoned and said I would only be allowed out of the house from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday. He said I should be able to do everything I needed to do during those hours. That was my welcome to what we now call “e-carceration,” the deprivation of liberty by means of technology.
During that year, just like with prison, I figured out how to cope with the monitor and how to squeeze more time out of the house than those four hours a day. But I never forgot what felt like dragging prison around with me on my leg, of its virtual presence in my family space. I knew that this was not what people needed when they got out of prison. They needed freedom and support, not an electronic shackle.
“If passed, we hope HB 1115 will spark a wave of legislative push-back against the reckless proliferation of e-carceration.”
Over the years, Illinois’ DOC has continued to slap these devices on people after they have done their bids in prison. Only recently have formerly incarcerated folks and other activists begun to attempt to reign in this latest form of incarceration.
In fact, at the moment, Illinois is leading the way in this arena. In February, a group I helped form, called the Illinois Coalition to Challenge Electronic Monitoring, took part in a subject-matter hearing in Chicago before the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. A number of people who had been on monitors came and told their stories. Chris Harrison, who spent a year on a monitor after doing 18 years in prison, explained how the “band,” as he called it, kept him from getting jobs, attending funerals, and finding his way back into the community. Nicole Davis described how her uncle came home from prison with a monitor on his leg only to pass away 63 days later. He laid in the mortuary for two weeks before DOC finally came and cut the band off his leg. The monitor would not even let him die in dignity.
Other speakers pointed out the lack of research showing that electronic monitoring has had any positive impact on recidivism, and that using monitoring as part of supervised release actually added to the DOC budget, rather than saved tax dollars. The fact that a subsidiary of the GEO Group, the world’s largest private prison company, is the main beneficiary of e-carceration contracting was not lost on lawmakers. Illinois passed a law in the early 1990s banning private prisons from operating in the state. That legislation remains in effect.
After the hearing, state Rep. Carol Ammons introduced a bill in the House – the Mandatory Supervised Release Reentry Freedom Act, or HB 1115 – to ban the use of electronic monitoring on all people who have completed their state prison sentences. Illinois currently has about 2,700 people on electronic monitoring. HB 1115 would exempt about 85% of those from monitoring. The remainder would be held under separate statutes applying to people with certain categories of sex- and domestic violence-related cases. After considerable debate on the House floor, the bill gained 62 votes, two more than it needed to pass. After a two-week recess, the bill will go to the Senate.
HB 1115 is the first piece of legislation in the country to address the harmful effects of electronic monitoring on people who have already served their time. It’s the first bill to acknowledge that house arrest and electronic monitoring are harmful extensions of a prison sentence. Making this bill a reality is the product of joint efforts by individuals who have been on electronic monitoring after being incarcerated in Illinois, social justice activists and advocacy organizations, and a new wave of state legislators, like Rep. Ammons, who are dedicated to criminal justice reform. More than 350 people and organizations, including American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, formally support the bill.
If passed, we hope this bill will spark a wave of legislative push-back against the reckless proliferation of e-carceration. A 2016 Pew study found that the use of electronic monitoring has risen by 140% since 2006. The increased use of surveillance technologies being falsely marketed as “alternatives to incarceration” are replacing physical cages with digital prisons. As Michelle Alexander eloquently wrote in her recent New York Times op-ed, “The Newest Jim Crow”:
‘If our goal is not a better system of mass criminalization, but instead the creation of safe, caring, thriving communities, then we ought to be heavily investing in quality schools, job creation, drug treatment and mental health care in the least advantaged communities rather than pouring billions into their high-tech management and control.’
We are hopeful that HB 1115 will be signed into law. However, regardless of the outcome, we recognize this as a watershed moment when advocates, legislators, and activists from across the country have come together to stand against what we all recognize as a growing threat to the criminal justice reform movement.
–James Kilgore is an educator, researcher, activist, author, and 2017 Soros Justice Fellow. Hear more of James’ story and his thoughts on electronic monitoring on AFSC-Arizona’s ReFraming Justice podcast, beginning May 1.
- To learn more about AFSC-Arizona’s research on “false alternatives to incarceration,” like ankle monitors, click here.
- To watch Rep. Carol Ammons’ explain HB 1115, click here.
- To watch Chris Harrison tell his story of being on a monitor after serving 18 years in prison, click here.
- To watch the Illinois State Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing, click here. The electronic monitoring portion begins at 1:18:59. (Password: evidence.)