Abolishing Electronic Incarceration

Myaisha Hayes and James Kilgore have launched a new campaign with the Center for Media Justice to challenge the widening use of electronic ankle shackles amid the momentum of “prison reform”. #ChallengingEcarceration is informed by James’ experiences with electronic monitoring after he was released from prison for his activities with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Together, they argue that electronic incarceration is not an alternative to imprisonment, but a further expansion of the police state into our everyday lives.

Image credit: Alexandra Mateescu, Hostile Architecture

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Episode Transcript:

Alejo: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Alejo Stark. In this episode, “Abolishing Electronic Incarceration”, co-producer a Maria speaks with Myaisha Hayes and James Kilgore about the movement to challenge the widening use of “electronic monitoring devices,” or ankle shackles. Myaisha is the National Organizer of Criminal Justice & Technology at the Center for Media Justice. James works with the Urbana Champaign independent media center and is the director of a project called “challenging e-carceration” which grows out of his own experiences with electronic monitoring after he was released from prison for his activities with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Myaisha and James argue that “electronic incarceration,” or e-carceration, is not an alternative to imprisonment, rather, it is the further expansion of the police state into our lives.

Before we begin, here is Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.


Kaif: On May 11th, the US Bureau of Prisons announced a change in its guidelines, rolling back protections for transgender inmates. According to the new guidelines: an imprisoned person’s gender identity will no longer be considered in decisions made as to where to confine them. This policy change is part of a larger, sustained attack on trans people by the Trump administration, which has already rolled back protections for trans federal employees and public school students.

On May 13th, abolitionist demonstrators descended on the Michigan Department of Corrections’ director’s home to deliver Mother’s Day cards to her in protest of draconian changes to the prisoner mail policy. The current policy on prisoner mail prohibits stickers, colored inks, handmade greeting cards and embellishments. The Michigan DOC claims that the purpose of the new policy is to stop the flow of contraband into its prisons — even though the vast majority of contraband smuggled into prisons are introduced by corrections officers. The action was organized by Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (or MAPS).

Multiple inmate uprisings were sparked throughout the month of May, including actions at the  Crossroads Correctional Center in Missouri and Angola prison in Louisiana. The insurrection in Missouri, which occurred on May 13th and 14th, saw 209 inmates refuse to return their cell, demanding the prison address staff shortages and decreased recreation time and programs. On May 8th, prisoners in Angola prison in Louisiana began a work stoppage at the prison farm in protest of prison slavery and systematic oppression. Angola prison is named after the slave plantation on which it now sits, and it has been famously called “alcatraz of the south”. Prison officials there have transferred strike participants to an undisclosed location.

According to the UN, 110 Palestinians, including 12 children, have been murdered and 12,600 Palestinians have been injured by the Israeli state since the beginning the Great March of Return, which began on March 30th and continued until Nakba Day on May 15th. The Israeli occupying forces used live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately on the massive crowds of peaceful palestinian protesters who gathered at the border to demand that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to return home. To add insult to injury, the Trump administration opened the new US embassy in Jerusalem the day before Nakba Day, adding fuel to the fire of Palestinian resistance.

a Maria: I’m a Maria, and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. On today’s show I’m speaking with Myaisha Hayes and James Kilgore about the Challenging E-carceration project, launched in Spring 2018 to contest the use of electronic monitoring in the criminal justice and immigration systems.

Myaisha Hayes: My name is Myaisha Hayes and I am the National Organizer on Criminal Justice & Technology at the Center for Media Justice. The Center for Media Justice is a national organizing hub whose mission is to win racial and economic equity in a digital age. We are also the host of the nation’s largest racial justice network for media technology and cultural change known as the Media Action Grassroots Network. And my work in particular focuses on the way in which technology is expanding the harm caused by policing and the criminal legal system.

James Kilgore: My name is James Kilgore. I work out of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center which is a part of the network that Myaisha talked about. I am also the director of this project called Challenging E-carceration which grew out of my own experience of being on electronic monitor for years post my 6 and a half years of incarceration so, I believe electronic monitoring poses some serious threats and concerns to us as a new form of incarceration moving in from the safe facilities into communities. I’ve done a lot a work around mass incarceration since I came out if prison. In 2009, I wrote a book called understanding mass incarceration and I’ve also been active in my own community as a co-director of a reentry program called First Followers and as part of an anti jail group called Build Programs not Jails.

a Maria: There’s a growing movement of people working to undermine the common sense of imprisonment. Why is this an important moment to challenge electronic incarceration as a false solution to other forms of incarceration?

James Kilgore: Well at this moment e-carceration is on the agenda and ending cash bail is on the agenda. A part of our concern is if you get people out of jail or prison what comes next? And as Myaisha said, this is not an alternative to incarceration but rather this is an alternative form of incarceration and we want to stop this before it really gets a foothold into the movement to change the criminal legal system. Because we think there is a lot of naivety about it, there is a lot of belief that this is an alternative, that it’s just a piece a plastic around peoples ankles, when actually, as you noted is a shackle is a connection to carceral control and it’s a way of restricting people’s movement, depriving them of their liberty. And in many cases people are actually paying money to be on this, so it’s becoming a monetized form of incarceration where you are paying money to be locked up in your own home.

Myaisha Hayes: We are in this moment right now where there is a lot of activity happening to dramatically reduce our prison and jail populations. Because of all this activity there are a lot of folks talking about, what do we do? How do we get people out of these conditions? And make no mistake, like, none of us are naive about the horrible conditions that people face when they are detained pretrial or when they are incarcerated inside prisons. But the answer cannot be to come up with a new form of incarceration, which is what electronic monitoring does. It merely just shifts the site and cost of incarceration away from jails and prisons into our homes and our communities. So while electronic monitoring has been used in the criminal legal system for the past 30 years, the number of people on these devices have more than doubled in the past decade, and so as James was saying, we are seeing people routinely placed on electronic monitoring as a condition of parole, pretrial release, and this includes also youth that are just as involved, and immigrants. And so, as we are contending with ways to stop this problem of mass incarceration we have to think really critically about what the alternatives are and whenever we talk about electronic monitoring it’s really important, particularly in this campaign, to uplift the narrative that it’s an alternative form of incarceration, not an alternative to incarceration. And if we want to have conversations about alternatives then we need to not blindly rely on technology as the solution to these issues.

James Kilgore: And I think one of the important points that we repeatedly make is: in order to have genuine decarceration that is transformative we need to take the resources that have been put into building jails and prisons and into the entire criminal legal apparatus and shift those into the communities that have been hit by mass incarceration and really redistribute and change the ways in which these communities function. And even to just let people out of jails and prisons without providing them with any different context within in which it operates, is simply to condemn them to unlimited poverty to living completely at the margins and the authorities may brag that recidivism rates have fallen but the quality of life for people is hardly better and sometimes can be even worse than what people face when they are in prison.

a Maria: The two of you, with the panel of women who launched the campaign, have talked about how this brings the un-livability of prisons into our homes and neighborhoods. Can you say more about that?

James Kilgore: Well I think people who aren’t familiar or who haven’t been impacted by electronic monitoring don’t realize the draconian regulations that go along with electronic monitoring. There aren’t no rights or entitlements for people who are on electronic monitoring in most cases. It’s completely left up to the whim of a probation officer or parole officer, and most of these officials are schooled in the doctrine of punishment and in the doctrine that has informed mass incarceration and led to the situation that we are in at the moment. So to give them control over your movements, over whether you can participate in family activities, over whether you can participate in community activities, whether you can access work. This is ceding that authority back to the state but bringing it in to your living room. And I think a couple of the important points are: one, is that you are actually bring the technology of incarceration into the house when you are bringing this box or this technology into people’s living space. So a lot of people that have been on a monitor talk about how they feel as if they are inflicting a prison on their family members by bringing this device into the house and bring the rules and regulations of the monitor so that their own family members become like their jailers in the sense that they have to make sure that they are home on time that they don’t leave the house before they are allowed movement, so forth, and there’s just this incredible uncertainty about whether or not a small violation is going to send somebody back to prison.

I interviewed Monica Cosby who spent twenty years in prison and sixty days on a monitor when she came out. And what she said was that, as a woman who had been in an abusive relationships that being on a monitor was like being in an abusive relationship — that the fear never went away. That even when you left the house there was a fear that you were going to do something wrong and when you came home you were to be punished for it. So she drew this analogy between electronic monitoring and being in an abusive relationship. Well obviously there are differences, but the point is that people constantly feel fear. I heard people talk about feeling paralyzed, feeling suffocated when they are on an electronic monitor.  Then the other issue of about exclusion zones that are put on people so that people can be prevented from going to certain parts of the city, and this often affects people that have a history of sex offenses, or a history of alleged gang involvement, they are barred from going to different parts of the city. And this is really the ultimate kind of urban restructuring, it’s a form of gentrification where you use technology to keep certain people in certain places and protect other people from the marginalized sectors of the population, particularly people of color.

a Maria: Myaisha, you started saying something back there at the beginning?

Myaisha Hayes: I always, you know, refer to James around that because he’s is directly  impacted by electronic monitoring and I think those who have had to experience electronic monitoring should be sharing their stories and sharing their narratives because the details of their stories I think really get at the heart of what we are saying about electronic monitoring  being a form of incarceration. What really stands out to me is Lavette Mayes who is a volunteer at the Chicago Community Bail Fund who is one of our panelists for our webinar and before joining CMJ I was a organizer at the Close Rikers campaign and so whenever I hear horror stories about the conditions inside our jails it’s always really shocking. But what was shocking about her story was that when she was released from Cook county [jail] the conditions that she faced on electronic monitoring was so severe it was like her entire home had been subjected to random searches and check-ins that really impacted her family, her movement, everything that James had just said, and so she ended up taking a plea, which is something that we see a lot with people that are detained pretrial inside of jails. We saw this a lot with Rikers Island, people taking deals because they can’t handle the conditions inside of Rikers, and I think that is something of a red flag to us as advocates and organizers who are contending with whether or not technology such as electronic monitoring can be an alternative if we keep seeing same results happening, right, people still taking deals that they should be fighting, right, instead of using electronic monitoring so.

a Maria: It can be unclear where and how ankle shackles are brought into people’s’ lives in court cases these days. Can you talk about where the net is often cast, so to speak, and the fight against widening the net?

James Kilgore: I think there are four main areas where electronic monitoring is used. First, it’s used as a condition of parole when people have done their time already and yet somehow we want to extend their period of incarceration with technology so this is a really flagrant violation of what is supposed to be happening in sentencing. Secondly, they’re used pretrial where people are–have–a case in jail and they are released some time they’re paying a bond or bail to be released and the monitor becomes a condition of that bail. Thirdly, they’re used quite frequently in juvenile justice which is a particularly high growth area that’s disproportionately targeting black and brown youth. I talked to an eighteen year old man who’s been on electronic monitoring seven times already and I did quite a number of inquiries with youth groups in Chicago and Los Angeles mainly youth of color and electronic monitoring is just about as common as Jordans in those communities. I mean it’s just everybody is experiencing it or knows somebody who has it and everybody knows the problems that you face in terms of making sure you have them plugged in or making sure that you are home on time, all the rules and regulations. This is part of the culture that criminalize population in those cities. And the fourth area which is an extremely high growth area for the use of electronic monitoring is in immigration. What’s happening is that the GEO group, the world’s biggest private prison operator, owns the electronic monitoring company that contract with ICE. So not only are they building these immigration prisons, but they are also using electronic monitors on the surplus population. And what’s really been surprising in the case we heard about is that people are being put on these monitors and then they are just being sent on their way, so they are not really reporting to a parole officer or to a probation officer, or to a supervisor as you are in the other situations, they seem to just been wandering around with this device while the company is making money on it and they’re sitting there trying to figure out, what is this thing doing? Once again, there is a culture of fear that goes along with it but it’s unclear why this is being used and it’s certainly making a lot of money for BI — which is the company that is owned by the GEO group that sales these things.

Myaisha Hayes: Just to add a little bit to how electronic monitoring  shows up in immigration. ICE launched their alternative to detention program, back in, I think the late nineties  with the purpose of expanding release options for undocumented immigrants awaiting their deportation proceedings. And initially many immigration rights organizations supported  this program because, one, the abuse that immigrants had experienced in detention centers were so horrific that, of course, alternatives to these detention facilities would be very beneficial, and at the time these programs were very much community-based programs but after the attacks on September 11 the political motivation to invest in community-based programs and evaporates and the priority when it comes to immigration becomes exclusively about national security. So, by the early 2000’s you see ICE’s alternative to detention program includes the most restrictive forms of  supervision and then by 2004 they launch their ISP (Intensive Supervision Program) which includes this heightened reliance on electronic monitoring for immigrants. And truthfully there is not enough information about how they decide who’s being placed on electronic monitoring, you know, supposedly it has to do with the category of “risk” but I’ve also spoken to advocates and lawyers who said that it could be as simple as there is no room on this detention facility and we are just going to place you on this electronic monitor. Immigrants face, you know, very similar violations and abuse while their on electronic monitoring. I think immigration is an interesting space to uplift because the intention behind alternatives is to not rely on the most restrictive, the most punitive forms of incarceration. But instead, electronic monitoring in this space have actually expanded the state’s, or the government’s, ability and capacity to actually detain immigrants. They are not using detention facilities any less  now then they were fifteen, twenty years ago and now they can detain even more people through the use of electronic monitoring.

James Kilgore: And just to build off of that, not only is it ICE and BI that is doing this, but we now seen the rise of private companies like Libre by Nexus, which pays the immigration bonds for people to be released and then puts them on an electronic monitor and charges them 14 dollars a day which is not mandated by the court or by ICE but is mandated by the company and the company keeps all that money. It doesn’t go towards the person’s bond, it’s just pure revenue for Libre by Nexus. So there is a number of lawsuits that are being brought against them, And bail bond companies are doing similar things now. I know in New York I’ve talked to people who have cases when they are paying their bail they are then being put on electronic monitor by the bail bond company, not ordered by the court, and then they are under some kind of very nebulous kind of restrictions or control or surveillance by the bail bond companies. So we are seeing a different form of the privatization of electronic monitoring, beyond the privatization that takes place through the courts and through the GEO group channels.

a Maria: Despite the fact that electronic monitoring has been around for, as you said, decades now, the combination of expanding technology and political shifts around –quote, unquote– prison reform has made this a critical moment to highlight e-carceration. Can the two of you outline the campaign and talk about the different angles from which people are plugging into this work?

Myaisha Hayes: Sure, so a major component of this campaign is doing a lot of public education around why the presentation of electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration is  misguided. And this is a narrative that we need to push forward with our bail reform folks, folks that are doing parole, immigration, you know, juvenile justice, because the narrative is strong throughout  all of those spaces that the best alternative that we have at the moment is electronic monitoring and we really need to do a lot a lot of work to reframe that narrative and uplift the fact that electronic monitoring is an alternative form of incarceration, not an alternative to incarceration. And that for jurisdictions that are already using electronic monitoring let’s treat it as a form of incarceration by uplifting a standard of rules and regulations that respect the rights of those who are on electronic monitoring because as James just said before and past presentations even when you are inside you have rights, they may not be a lot, they may not always be well facilitated– but you have rights. And so people who are on electronic monitoring should also have rights, but we have to be real about the fact that its an alternative form of incarceration to get to a conversation around what sort of rights and protections should you have when you are on electronic monitoring. So that is a big part of this campaign’s work and what we are planning to do in the future with our partners. And finding, you know, organizing and advocacy interventions where our guidelines and our narrative and the mission of this work can have a high impact. We’ve been referencing a lot of the bail movement that’s happening, the bail reform movement that’s happening, and so where there is legislation that can potentially introduce electronic monitoring we want to work with our allies and partners on how can we educate their members or their elected around the harm that electronic monitoring can potentially produce.

James Kilgore: So, I think also we are talking about working in concrete situations where there are already is possibilities for legislation that kind of draws on the guidelines that we’ve drawn up. So, for example in Illinois, where I live, there’s a bill that’s being put forward that would ban the use of electronic monitoring for people on parole except for where it’s required by statute, we don’t like that fact there is some exceptions but it would require a whole lot of other legislation to change that. So, we are building towards having a bill put into the legislature in the fall that would get rid of 85% of the people who are on monitoring, it will get rid of the monitor for them. We think this is an important step and sets a precedent for other states to get rid of monitoring for people on parole because we think that’s really the kind of most outrageous use of electronic monitoring when people are coming home after doing 20 years in prison and then they’re getting locked up in their own homes and is causing taxpayers extra money, so, we have in Illinois for example, they spend 3 and a half million dollars on electronic monitoring of people on parole. And yet –a story just came out this week–that they are spending 300 dollars, 300 dollars! on books for a prison system of about 45,000 people so it’s pretty clear that this provides us for some opportunities to get resources relocated away from locking people up in their homes. And I think in a broader sense to connect this to an issue of prison abolition.

I think we have to look at what electronic monitoring is in a broader context, it’s not just something that’s imposed as a condition of parole or pretrial release, but it’s also a form of surveillance that about 70% of the devices that are out there now are GPS-enabled they’re are tracking locations and their putting that data somewhere on a cloud, there are not regulations in most places about what happened to that data, about who owns it, about what can be done with it. In Germany, for example, they have to delete that tracking data after two months. We’ve seen contracts in the U.S. that guarantee that the data will be kept for 7 years. So this is being now blended in with all the other databases that are on the population that’s on electronic monitoring because this is a criminalized population and so these databases are another way in which people are deprived of their liberty, are deprived of opportunities for employment, deprived of opportunities for accessing education and so forth. So, we need to recognize that the breadth of, the impact that this is not just as people are kept in their houses–as if that is not bad enough– but it has these implications for a surveillance base enhanced. And it’s important to recognize that the impact of people who are in a criminalized sector of the population it’s very different than the impact of what I call the “Snowden type of surveillance” where people are getting emails and phone calls snatched for no particular reason. There is no real impact on people, maybe there will be one day, but the people who are protesting against this for the most part are people who say “we’re innocent, you should be surveilling these people over here” –but it’s the people that are on monitors, the people that are being the victims of StingRay’s and other kinds of state surveillance that pay the price of that surveillance with their liberty.

a Maria: What does electronic monitoring, and the fight against this set of technologies, have to do with abolition?

James Kilgore: What does electronic monitoring have to do with abolition, a lot of people who have that perspective, I mean we have that perspective, a lot of people think well this is a really technicist kind of thing, it’s a reformist kind of action. I think for a lot of people when you talk about getting people off of electronic monitors or reducing the use of electronic monitors it sounds like a very kind of technical kind of “tweaking” of the system and for some people it maybe even be seen as kind of like almost helping perpetuate the system by fighting against this technology but not really getting at the root of the problem. But we actually see electronic monitoring as a futuristic vision on the part of the carceral state about how incarceration, mass criminalization, can work in the future. There is the issue of the site and the costs of incarceration being shifted from state to state facilities into communities, into households, but there is also  the kind of restructuring of urban space that is possible with the use of technology, and I refer to this as “e-gentrification.”

So for example, if we look at the apartheid state, I mean cause I lived in South Africa in the 1990’s, so I have some familiarity with the passbooks that Black people were supposed to carry. And police would post up on corners and stop people and if their passbook was like a domestice passport, didn’t have a permit that would allow them to be in a particular part of the city, they went to jail. Well, certainly with GPS-enabled phones, and other kinds of GPS-enabled tracking devices this is a very easy kind of, form of population control to our present day urban situations. And already we see gentrification which is enforced by a variety of ordinances, by a variety of policing practices but this is a technology that can be basically give everyone kind of an technological passbook which says where you can go and where you can’t go, when you can go there. All these things can easily be programed into a more advanced electronic monitoring device. One of the things that I found was when I interviewed youth and I asked them where do they think this technology will be in 10 years, almost without exception they say we are going to have computer chips implanted in us and there is going to be this total control kind of situation, and I think we need to at least plug in to their kind of view of the world in regards to this technology and think about if you were the CEO of the GEO group or coreCIVIC what would you been looking to do in 5 or 10 years in cell phones (or whatever communication devices we have in 5 or 10 years) going to be able to do to help you complete your agenda? There is a lot of big questions, I mean we want to fight to get people off these devices, we want to fight for people to have freedom in their daily lives and not have their families and their communities be controlled by technology but we also want to put that in the context of contesting the vision as to where is technology going and how is going to impact particularly Black and Brown people, poor people in this county.

Myaisha Hayes: Please check out the Center for Media Justice’s website, when you get to our page the Center for Media Justice, there is a tab called challenging E-Carceration. And when you click on that you will see our fact sheet, you will see the guidelines that James authored, you will see case studies about how electronic monitoring shows up in pretrial and parole, and than our contact information in case people want to get involved. We just had our first organizing call and we plan to have a lot more and so with more folks on those calls we hope to find opportunities to do more of this work, so I just wanted to make sure we said that.

a Maria: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for that and thank you both so much for joining us today!

Myaisha Hayes: Thanks so much for having us!

James Kilgore: Thanks, thanks so much for the program, a wonderful program.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.