In his recent New York Times video essay “Prisoners Deserve a New Set of Rights,” rapper Meek Mill lists the many ways that the criminal legal system fails to protect and uphold the rights of the accused—from arrest, through sentencing and all the way up to release. Mill says, “We had the right to be silent. Now it’s our right to speak up,” as he goes on to describe how formerly incarcerated people are systemically barred from a range of resources.
One thing to add to Mill’s powerful set of demands though is the right to return home freely without being digitally imprisoned.
It is well known that the United States has the highest prison population in the world, however our system of mass incarceration extends beyond the lives of those who are locked away. At this time, there are 5 million people under some version of correctional control—usually within the form of probation or parole. This expansion of parole in particular is ushering in a new wave of technological incarceration with a heavy reliance on electronic monitors.
Electronic monitors are hardly a new invention and have been in use for at least the past 30 years. However, their usage has increased by 140 percent in the last decade. Our research shows that four large private corporations control a majority of the contracts for electronic monitoring for people on parole across the country. They make at least $200 million a year just from these contracts, and the market continues to grow.
Electronic monitoring is regularly presented as an alternative to incarceration for parole release. In reality, electronic monitoring mirrors the punitive conditions experienced inside a prison or jail cell while shifting the site of imprisonment to our homes—especially impacting Black and Latinx households.
All electronic monitoring regimes come with a condition of house arrest, which deprives an individual of their freedom of movement. This creates barriers to sustaining employment, finding housing, taking part in family needs, or engaging in community and religious activities. It’s incarceration after incarceration. Using these devices as a condition of parole effectively extends the time already served for those who are promised release.
For instance, after spending several years in an Illinois prison, Edmund Buck was released in 2013. But as he stepped out of the prison gates he was shackled with an electronic monitor that continued to track his every move. At a Challenging E-Carceration event in Chicago, Buck described his experience of living on the device as brutal. “I was not given a choice. I think it was worse than prison for me. I had some movement three days a week…to be immersed in the world, but not free. It made me feel like an animal.”
The lived experiences of people like Buck directly contradict the narrative that these tools are a real alternative to incarceration. Of course when presented with the choice of incarceration by prison versus by home confinement, most would likely choose the latter. No one would choose to be subjected to the cruelty, violence and abuse so many experience inside our nation’s prisons. It is the false choice presented in exchange for freedom that concerns us.
In her own recent New York Times op-ed on the threat of e-carceration as a viable pathway to reform, Michelle Alexander writes, “If you asked slaves if they would rather live with their families and raise their own children, albeit subject to ‘whites only signs,’ legal discrimination and Jim Crow segregation, they’d almost certainly say: I’ll take Jim Crow.”
We are living in a political moment when the demand to decarcerate is ushering in a wave of criminal justice reform. However, we run the risk of replicating the same forms of punishment when we ignore how electronic monitors are creating digital prisons inside our communities. The movement to decarcerate is an opportunity to leave these punitive practices behind completely and invest in the resources that actually support communities being impacted by the long arm of mass incarceration.
Myaisha Hayes (@MyaishaAyanna) is national field organizer on criminal justice and technology at the Center for Media Justice and co-author of the report "No More Shackles: Why We Must End Electronic Monitoring for People on Parole."