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Law professor finds ankle monitors as restrictive as incarceration

Sydney Walsh | Staff Photographer
Kate Weisburd, the study’s lead researcher, said many individuals don’t have stable housing or reliable electricity access to recharge their monitors on time, leading some to reincarceration.

Updated Oct. 4, 2021 at 2:50 p.m.

A law professor found that wearing an ankle monitor during probation or parole is just as restrictive as incarceration in a report published late last month.

Kate Weisburd, an associate professor of law and the lead researcher of the study, said she worked with a team of 10 GW Law students who collected contract records from 247 agencies that oversee individuals on pretrial release, probation and parole across the country to analyze the effects of ankle monitors on daily life. She said after two years of research, her team found that ankle monitors limit individual privacy, personal autonomy, relationships, employment and financial security as much as incarceration.

“Having an ankle monitor on is seen as much less restrictive and favorable as compared to being in a prison cell, and while I think that intuitively makes sense, what this report does is it sort of debunks that assumption that it’s better than prison or jail,” Weisburd said.

The study found that more than 51 percent of people wearing ankle monitors must remain at home at all times, more than 41 percent must charge their monitors multiple times a day and more than half must follow a set daily schedule of activities like when they can leave the house to go grocery shopping or attend religious services. The report also found that agencies charge wearers fees for the failure to pay for ankle monitors, which could cost hundreds of dollars a month.

Weisburd said people who are on pretrial, probation or parole are under a form of “community supervision” from a criminal court judge that restricts their lifestyle even though they aren’t in jail.

Weisburd said her former job as staff attorney for a juvenile court in California inspired her to create the report. Some of the young people on probation who she worked with in California told her their ankle monitors would beep during their school classes, embarrassing them and scaring them from attending school again, she said.

She said many people with ankle monitors are arrested a second time because they fail to comply with monitoring policies like the requirement to recharge the monitor’s battery before it dies. She said many of these individuals don’t have stable housing or reliable electricity access to recharge their monitors on time, leading some to reincarceration.

“What I saw is young people get rearrested and reincarcerated for new criminal cases,” Weisburd said. “They weren’t getting arrested for violating a criminal law. They’re being detained and sent to jail for technical violations of the monitoring rules.”

She said she doesn’t think electronic monitoring will “disappear” overnight, but she hopes the report will convey that the technology is a restrictive form of incarceration. She said this report dives into the “inner workings” of how electronic surveillance works, building on years of work that activists and community organizations have done to show the harmful effects of ankle monitors.

​​”Our hope is that it pushes more, it pushes the conversation forward more to recognize just how restrictive monitoring is, and hopefully it can be useful for advocates, policy makers, for activists, researchers, to push for more people to just be out without a monitor and to not be in prison and to not be on a monitor,” she said.

Varun Bhadha, a recent law school graduate who worked with Weisburd as a research assistant, said he joined the team a year after the project started to help fight against the racism and classism of the prison system.

“We have to be really thoughtful as a society about moving toward this alternative form of incarceration rather than just falling or slipping backwards into it,” Bhadha said.

In states like Illinois, Black individuals comprise about 58 percent of those on parole with electronic monitoring technology like ankle monitors tracking them while only making up 15 percent of the population.

Bhadha said the research team used Excel to organize records and Freedom of Information Act requests to collect further details from different jurisdictions using the ankle monitor.

He said activists and public defenders can use the report as an advocacy tool to help support arguments in attaining lenient laws.

“This and other research will continue to let us bring that view into the mainstream and to let us see that and understand that better,” Bhadha said.

James Kilgore – the director of the Challenging E-Carceration Project at MediaJustice, a media organization that fights for racial and economic equity – said he spent a year on a monitor after serving time in prison in 2009 for second degree murder. He could only exit the house between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. from Mondays through Fridays while wearing his ankle monitor, he said.

“The first night I got into bed with the monitor I had this image of my parole agent laying across the bed under covers looking up at me and my partner,” Kilgore said. “I think that kind of summarizes how you feel you have the constant gaze of the state looking at you.”

He said the ankle monitor restricts wearers from jobs like house cleaning or yard maintenance because it limits their range of movement. He said the rules governing those who wear ankle monitors include having to get permission for marriage.

Kilgore said Weisburd’s report helps connect the data with the personal stories of those who experienced ankle monitoring, showing how electronic monitoring policies are just as “draconian” as prisons.

“I love that study because it’s so refreshing after all the things I’ve read, and it’s very broad and the fact that a team of students helped do that is just really impressive and shows the ways in which we can use the power and the resources of universities to create things that are gonna help contribute to change,” he said.

This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Kilgore spent time in prison for bank robbery and second degree murder. Kilgore was not convicted of bank robbery. We regret this error.

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