For years, my view of the outside world was reduced to what I could see out of one barred window: the barren stretches between prison buildings, the walls topped with barbed wire, and beyond, a line of cypress trees on a remote hill. One of my few joys was the rare sight of a wild rabbit scurrying through the grass in springtime ― a reminder that out there, life carried on, even if I couldn’t be a part of it.
If you had asked me on any single one of those 1,428 days I spent in Capanne prison, would I rather wear a GPS tracker and play with the rabbits? I would have said yes in a rabbit heartbeat.
GPS trackers and associated surveillance technologies, like radio frequency tracking and remote alcohol monitoring ― collectively referred to as e-carceration ― are now being used as an alternative means to deprive defendants and convicts of their liberty in an attempt to reduce jail and prison populations. These devices are commonly a condition of bail, probation, and parole.
But if you google e-carceration, you will find article after article warning of its dangers, its abuses, and its pointlessness. Writing for IBT Times, Eric Markowitz provides some harrowing examples of people forced to cover the cost of their own electronic monitors, paying for-profit companies like Offender Management Services $300 a month or more.
Activist James Kilgore, who runs the Challenging E-Carceration project, notes that, “electronic monitoring companies keep people’s GPS tracking data for as long as they want, access is not strictly limited, and the data may even be bought and sold on the market.”
The prevailing belief seems to be deep skepticism and outright dismissal of e-carceration. This position is expressed forcefully by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. Writing for the New York Times, Alexander worries that e-carcaration is a next-gen system of “racial and social control” “that may prove more dangerous and more difficult to challenge than the one we hope to leave behind.” Her worry stems from the fact that algorithms are increasingly being used to decide who gets released on electronic monitoring, and who doesn’t. She points out that algorithms aren’t by nature neutral, that they are encoded with the biases of the people who write them. “Challenging these biased algorithms may be more difficult than challenging discrimination by the police, prosecutors and judges,” she writes. “Many algorithms are fiercely guarded corporate secrets. Those that are transparent — you can actually read the code — lack a public audit so it’s impossible to know how much more often they fail for people of color.”
Alexander also decries ankle bracelets for how they “make it difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, care for your kids or visit family members.” In her reckoning, the sole beneficiaries of e-carceration technologies are “private corporations” and the losers are “nearly everyone.”
“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.”
I agree that we need to be moving to a less punitive and more restorative model of justice. We need to be replacing excessive criminalization and for-profit opportunism with treatment, training, and therapy. And if we don’t stay vigilant, if we allow these technologies to develop unchecked, we could find ourselves in a world where the low cost of e-carceration creates a lower threshold for punishment and the punished bear all the cost. Private corporations would profit from e-carcerating our most vulnerable communities, transforming them into digital ghettos, lined not with barbed wire, but with GPS fences patrolled by drone.
The consensus seems to be clear: e-carceration is not a solution to the problems with our criminal justice system; it may, in fact, make things worse. And yet, I can’t help but note that very few of these thinkers and activists have spent a single day locked in a physical prison cell. The one piece I could find written by someone who has experienced both forms of deprivation, James Baimbridge, comes from the Marshall Project. Baimbridge’s account of living under electronic monitoring sounds, to me, radically more fulfilling than life in prison. And yet the pull-quote that leads the essay, reads, “Even in prison, I didn’t feel so overwhelmed with worry about doing something wrong when I’m doing everything right.” It’s highly misleading, for Baimbridge clearly relishes the freedoms afforded him by e-carceration, when his alternative is physical prison.
So before we dismiss this technology, allow me to take a moment to bring you inside my physical prison. Incarceration stripped me of the obvious things: privacy, bodily autonomy, control over my physical space, my physical belongings, my time. I could no longer choose what food I consumed, what media I had access to, what medical care I could avail myself of, whose company I kept. I became used to, but never comfortable with, guards watching me as I showered and slept, patting me down whenever I entered and exited the yard, strip-searching me after visitations, and tearing apart my cell during routine shakedowns.
Contact with my family was reduced to 6 visitation hours a month and one 10-minute phone call a week. Letters took weeks to arrive, replies took weeks to return. My relationships were inevitably altered, and risked disintegration. And because I was sentenced to 26 years, had I not been exonerated, I would have been stripped of my ability to eventually bear children.
Removed from society, I was denied the opportunity to do meaningful work and build a career. Paid positions that were available within the prison ― cook, commissary distributor, janitor ― were menial, poorly compensated, and few and far between.
What I wouldn’t have given for the opportunity to be relieved of any of these myriad traumas and humiliations that defined my daily life while incarcerated.
Michelle Alexander seems to get this on a theoretical level. Even while painting this technology as a detriment to all but private corporations, she says, “if you ask prisoners whether they’d rather live with their families and raise their children, albeit with nearly constant digital surveillance and monitoring, they’d almost certainly say: I’ll take the electronic monitor. I would, too.” There is cognitive dissonance here.
E-carceration is far from a solution to all the problems in our justice system, but it isn’t the source of them, either. And yet so many of its critics present it this way, without adequate comparison to its physical alternative.
Forcing e-mates, or worse, the accused ― the innocent until proven guilty ― to cover the costs of their own electronic monitors is terrible. But consider the financial burden that families bear to stay in contact with inmates. Many must travel long distances―my own family had to travel 3,000 miles each way; here in the U.S., 63% of families have to travel over 100 miles to visit their incarcerated relatives. Families also have to pay exorbitant fees to send money to inmates just so those inmates can pay again to use the phone to stay in touch.
These burdens make visitation incredibly difficult, which is a shame, since studies have shown that visits and maintaining family ties are among the best ways to reduce recidivism. It’s even worse when you consider the cost of a family losing an adult income provider. It may be difficult to maintain a job and even visit family while wearing an ankle monitor, but it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to do so while incarcerated. And while it would be preferable to use the savings from closed prisons to pay for this technology, even a political compromise of making e-mates pay for their own ankle monitor is still financially preferable to being stripped of any opportunity to work and build job experience.
The charges of racial bias with this technology also need to be dissected. Attorney Stephanie Lacambra with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil liberties in the digital world, notes that “Black people in Cook County, IL make up 24% of the population, yet represent 70% of people on EM [electronic monitoring].” Sounds bad, which it is. But she immediately goes on to say, “This ratio mirrors the similarly skewed racial disparity in physical incarceration,” which suggests that this issue should not be directed at the technology, but rather at the biases and policies that lead to disparities in arrests and convictions based on race and ethnicity.
Even the worry about racial biases encoded in algorithmic decision-making is, I think, misplaced. With recent advances in machine learning, we have created software that makes decisions in ways we can’t understand. This is called the Black Box problem in the world of artificial intelligence. But ask yourself: how easy is it to pinpoint the exact cause of a human decision, the exact chain of reasoning in the brain of a parole board member when he decides yes or no? We can look at aggregate data to find patterns of racial bias, but we could do so with an algorithmic system, too. Implicit biases in humans are motley and ever-morphing. Those encoded into algorithms will be more regular, more trackable, and more analyzable. Human minds are the original black box; they are less transparent than algorithms, not more. Furthermore, algorithmic systems are more susceptible to tweaking and correcting when biases are detected. With ego-driven humans, by contrast, it is nigh-impossible to convince them to change or admit fault.
All the flaws and abuses that civil rights advocates worry about in the burgeoning field of e-carceration are flaws and abuses that are already prevalent in our corporeal system. And we should continue the struggle to rid the system of those inequities. But by any measure, e-carceration is more humane than incarceration. That’s why it would be inhumane to decide that we should have to fix all the problems of mass incarceration before taking steps to get people out of concrete boxes ― today ― and back into their homes with their families.
E-carceration will create new challenges, and new opportunities for abuse. But it could also transform society for the better. I imagine a world where we end cash bail, decriminalize drug offenses, and opt for programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion LEAD, that divert people away from prosecution and towards social services. These initiatives would lower our incarceration rates, but we would lower them even further with the help of electronic monitoring and artificial intelligence.
Only the most unstable and violent of criminals would require physical incarceration, and those would be in medical facilities. The rest of those who break the law would temporarily lose micro-degrees of privacy and social and geographical mobility, each tailored, through the power of big-data, to best correlate with rehabilitation for that individual, a far better alternative than the brute days of binary “lock them away” or “set them free” thinking. These methods would be used early on, sparingly, and surgically, correcting uncivil behavior patterns through incentive and disincentive before they develop into violent criminality. These technologies could even automatically afford an e-mate new freedoms in real-time, expanding their available digital and physical liberties as they prove themselves peaceful and productive members of society.
Of course, this vision is fantastical, and there are a million terrible pitfalls to avoid on the way to such a future, and probably plenty of downsides and unintended consequences of this system, even in its best form. But we can’t get anywhere near such a future if we don’t bother to imagine it. So, by all means, let’s be cautious, let’s be critical, but let’s not forget that there are millions of incarcerated individuals serving time in the U.S. who would give anything to tuck their children into bed at night, to feel the earth beneath their feet, to feel the wind and the sun on their faces. I would happily see so many of them released and absolved, but until we find the political will to do so, e-carceration is the more humane option.