On May 11, 2009, I celebrated my second day of freedom after six-and-a-half years in prison. That same day, a technician from the Department of Corrections arrived and slapped a black plastic band on my ankle. The next morning, my parole agent phoned and told me that with my electronic monitor, I would only be allowed out of the house Monday through Friday from 6 am to 10 am.
That device would keep prison in my life, reminding my family and everyone I encountered that I was a “convict.” I spent a whole year on that monitor, devoting a lot of that e-confinement time to considering the meaning of freedom. People kept asking me, “Well it’s better than prison, isn’t it?” I laughed and told them that that was the wrong question.
Since then, I’ve directed considerable energy to research and agitation about electronic monitoring. I’ve written numerous articles, done dozens of presentations and workshops, even won a fellowship to develop a campaign called Challenging E-Carceration. In my early days of researching electronic monitoring, virtually no one was paying attention.
In the last couple years, however, electronic monitoring has moved out of the shadows. As the drive to reduce carceral spending and cut prison and jail populations has gained momentum, electronic monitors have become a topic of debate and discussion, even at the national level. While Bernie Sanders’s recently released criminal legal reform plan does contain a sharp critique of risk assessment, he completely overlooks electronic monitoring and other forms of e-carceration. Many reformers looking for a techno-quick fix see electronic monitoring as a solution, a way to allegedly keep the public safe and track the criminalized while providing those who have been released from prison or jail with a modicum of freedom.
Fortunately, more people are becoming wary of electronic monitoring and other forms of what we call e-carceration: using technology to deprive people of their liberty. The rising awareness about e-carceration is heartening, but as with all new issues, fresh challenges emerge.
E-Carceration Is Another Form of Incarceration
We have to dispel the notion that electronic monitoring is an alternative to incarceration, that it’s better than jail. This means getting two points clear. The monitor, along with other forms of e-carceration, is an alternative form of incarceration. When we put a person on a monitor after they have served their prison or jail sentence, we are only extending that sentence by restricting their movement. We are setting them up for failure. Similarly, when we put a person on a monitor while they await judgement in their court case or their asylum hearing, we are punishing them before they have been convicted of anything, violating the fundamental legal premise of innocent until proven guilty.
Having said that, we must be clear on differentiating between what we recommend in individual cases and what we fight for as policy or practice. While electronic monitoring is incarceration, I will never tell someone who is sitting in jail or prison who has a chance to be on a monitor on the outside with loved ones that they should stay behind bars. That is their decision. On the other hand, I will never fight for the use of electronic monitoring as a policy solution any more than I would fight for building more “humane” prisons and jails. We need to end incarceration, including e-carceration.
Tracking Bodies Has Always Been Central to Incarceration
Monitoring is an evolving technology with long historical roots. Tracking bodies of the oppressed is not new. Settler colonialists in the U.S. tracked Indigenous folks from day one while enslavers kept meticulous track of their “property,” branding Black people with their plantation logo as a tool of surveillance and control. While tracking is not new, the technology is.
At the moment, the traditional electronic ankle shackle continues to dominate, but the evolution of the cellphone provides clear evidence this device is going to change in shape and capacity. Perhaps the most important change in the pipeline is the scrapping of bulky ankle bands and shift into cellphone apps.
On the surface, many of these may not appear punitive. In our immediate future, we can see a range of dedicated hybrid devices tinged with carceral humanism, in which jailers are repackaged as caring service providers. These technologies include Jay-Z’s Promise, Outreach Smartphone, BI’s Smart Link and Nexus. Entrepreneurs have packaged these techno-punishment devices as “support.” Promise boasts of being at the “forefront of the decarceration industry,” in which “technology is the key to accelerating” positive change. Jay-Z pledges to help provide “liberty and justice for all.” The Outreach Smartphone professes a mission of becoming “a companion to help change behavior and rehabilitate each person.”
In addition to offering real-time location tracking, these devices offer a package of “services” such as reminders of court dates, databases of service referrals, and online courses in life skills or anger management. While these “services” might be helpful in some instances, the apps give authorities the power to monitor behavior change and reward or punish appropriately. Even with a gentle edge, it is all about control. Subtle or overt, carceral control is still carceral control.
The other change of direction for electronic monitoring is the deepening integration of GPS tracking data into the larger databases of the criminalized. The electronic monitoring regimes run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) likely are the cutting edge of this process. The GPS tracking data for the 50,000 people under ICE monitoring gets filed away with the data in an Investigative Case Management system that facilitates interface with the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI and other agencies.
Investigative Case Management also links to an individual’s databases drawn from school history, family relations, employment, phone usage, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal background and addresses. As researcher Daniel Gonzalez told Truthout, ICE doesn’t find undocumented migrants using Investigative Case Management, it “manages existing documentation to produce them.” In other words, the vast data on those under ICE supervision classify people as “criminals” worthy of deportation, or as workers whose presence in the U.S. might be profitable.
In the recent Mississippi immigration raids, authorities used GPS tracking to verify that people who did not have work permits were inside the premises of a factory for eight hours a day, a telltale sign they were employed. Similar types of surveillance are homing in on people categorized as “Black Identity Extremists,” producing them through the interconnections of surveillance data sources.
The future of tracking may be about producing criminalized populations and then using the technology to control them, whether it be to regulate the flow of labor across interstate and international borders, or to confine individuals with a criminal history to certain parts of a city.
Connecting Movements Against E-Carceration
There are significant opportunities to build movements and organization as well as opportunities for intersectionality and solidarity. At the moment, people who are contesting electronic monitors tend to be siloed. The most popular current target for anti-electronic monitoring campaigning is pretrial electronic monitors.
While stopping the use of ankle shackles as part of decarceration is crucial, the bigger question is how to build the connection between the criminalized sectors of the population who are the targets of electronic monitors. In most cases, those who campaign to end money bond and pretrial detention rarely intersect with organizations of the formerly incarcerated who get bands slapped on them the minute they leave the prison.
Moreover, few folks who organize in the criminal legal sphere connect to struggles around immigration. Those who look at electronic monitoring through a surveillance state lens largely stand outside the massive social movements that are fighting deportation, mass supervision and money bail. If we truly understand that the problem of surveillance is systemic, we must work to connect people impacted by different parts of the system. Fighting to be free of surveillance and monitoring must ultimately go hand in hand with struggles for housing, education, health care, food, and racial and gender justice.
But building a systemic movement requires a new way of thinking. This new paradigm would incorporate mobilizing the stories of the directly impacted (especially Black and Brown folks), accessing the experience of those who actually work inside the tech companies that produce these systems, generating a few more whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, all topped off by a large dose of mass mobilization with an intersectional perspective.
But orthodox political analysis may not suffice here. The devices that are tracking us are also devices that most of us love and can’t live without. Every time I travel, I wonder how I ever managed to find anything without Google Maps. I often wake up to the sound of an Amazon package landing on my doorstep. But though I hate Amazon, I seemingly can’t live without it. I need re-education, and I suspect I am not alone.
While we know that Facebook is gathering data for sinister purposes, millions of us are still posting. Even those who can’t afford phones often use inboxing as their primary means of communication. Ultimately, we have to find ways to draw the line. While there may be something to be said for ordering socks online, there is no positive use for technology such as facial recognition software. Like nuclear weapons, this technology cannot be tweaked or reformed. It should not exist. As Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, put it, “The potential harms to human society and basic liberty far outweigh any potential benefits.”
The developers of these technologies and the evil algorithms of criminalization should suffer the angst and internal torment that plagued nuclear scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein when they saw the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki. Most importantly, as digital and civil rights activist Malkia Cyril told an audience at the recent Take Back Tech conference, “We can’t deny that tech is shaping us, the question is for who, for what?” Cyril urged the audience to “re-map in a way that spreads liberation.”
The End of E-Carceration and the Challenge of Abolition
While we focus our energy on dealing with this monster of e-carceration, we have to remember: Prisons and jails are not going away. Although the last decade has produced a tsunami of reports, studies, features, podcasts, conferences, workshops, sermons, videos, social media posts and organizing in critique of mass incarceration, the collateral consequences of this information storm have not levelled the prison industrial complex.
Organizing has stopped jail construction in Los Angeles and slashed prison populations in New York, Georgia and California, but the big picture remains far less rosy. In 2017, 30 states saw a decline in prison populations, but 20 states grew their those populations, with 10 hitting their all-time peak of incarceration.
Moreover, while the largest electronic monitoring companies like BI and Securus push for the expansion of monitoring, they still earn far more of their revenues from investments in prison and detention concentration camps than from e-carceration. As carceral conglomerates, these companies work hand in hand with state actors to reshape the punishment landscape. Their priority is the securing of current and future cages, while steadily building out the infrastructure for e-carceration and mass supervision.
Although predictions vary, Rachel Barkow, author of Prisoners of Politics, maintains that, “If we keep working on the kinds of criminal justice reforms that we’re doing right now, it’s going to take us 75 years to reduce the population by half.” More than 2 million people still sit inside cages and behind razor wire. Many of them are not going anywhere unless we fight to get them out. Many of their children will end up there if we don’t shut down these dungeons and redirect the resources into building communities of liberation.
Ultimately, the challenge of e-carceration is not about cutting off devices or passing legislation, it is about working toward a society where there is no need for this type of technology, where we can harness collective power and creativity to design and implement technologies that save the planet and help construct peaceful communities of plenty. This is the challenge e-carceration sets before us.