Shackles Aren’t “Bracelets”: Why We Should Be Concerned About the Marketing of Punitive Technology

Electronic monitors are devices of unfreedom—not decoration.

James Kilgore

Electronic monitors are punitive measures that expand the impact of incarceration. (Ctruongngoc/Wikimedia)

Courts, parole offi­cers and sher­iffs do not issue ankle bracelets. J‑Lo wears ankle bracelets. Women in Egypt have worn gold and sil­ver ankle bracelets for cen­turies. These acces­sories have lit­tle in com­mon with the black box­es the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem straps on ankles as pun­ish­ment. The most benign word we can use for them is mon­i­tors.” Span­ish-speak­ing immi­grants have anoth­er term: gril­letes,” or shack­les. What­ev­er you call them, they are devices of unfree­dom — not decoration.

Ultimately, the pathway to ending mass incarceration is not devising new punitive technologies nor re-packaging current measures by pretending they are jewelry.

Why does this mat­ter? The terms we use shape our under­stand­ing of peo­ple, tech­nol­o­gy and pol­i­cy. Neu­tral or pos­i­tive ter­mi­nol­o­gy dilutes the real­i­ty of pun­ish­ment and depri­va­tion. Hence, we have cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties” and secure hous­ing units,” rather than intern­ment camps” and tor­ture chambers.”

With the move toward decarcer­a­tion gain­ing steam in many juris­dic­tions, shack­les are gain­ing cre­dence as a tech­no­log­i­cal quick-fix. Many peo­ple in prison or jail jump at the chance to get out, regard­less of the con­di­tions. But once they get that band” on their ankles, their per­spec­tive often changes. John­ny Page told In These Times he spent 23 years and nine months in prison in Illi­nois, only to be put on a gril­lete for 90 days.

He summed up his expe­ri­ence, explain­ing that you don’t have to fight for the tele­phone, you don’t have to fight for the show­er, but you’re still in jail.” Richard Sta­ple­ton, who head­ed up elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing in the Michi­gan Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, appears to agree. He told In These Times that putting some­one on parole with a mon­i­tor is just anoth­er bur­den­some con­di­tion of extend­ing their incarceration.”

The impli­ca­tions of gril­letes go far beyond tra­di­tion­al incar­cer­a­tion. Increas­ing­ly, these devices have GPS capac­i­ty — giv­ing them the abil­i­ty to mon­i­tor a person’s every move in real time. But they can also be pro­grammed to incor­po­rate exclu­sion zones,” places where a per­son can­not go with­out trig­ger­ing an alarm or a re-arrest. Giv­en that just 10 years ago, a major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion was still using flip phones, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine where the tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty of phones and GPS is head­ed. What will it mean to be tracked in 2027?

Sev­er­al pos­si­ble dystopi­an sce­nar­ios emerge. The sim­plest is that we move hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple out of pris­ons and jails into their hous­es, which become their new cells. This form of urban renew­al recasts inner-city spaces as pris­ons beyond the walls, with fam­i­lies and indi­vid­u­als foot­ing the bills for home incar­cer­a­tion and mon­i­tor­ing ser­vice.” I call this e‑carceration: the next step in the pri­va­ti­za­tion of punishment.

But mon­i­tors are also sur­veil­lance devices, gath­er­ing data on people’s move­ments and stor­ing it in a cloud some­where. Most juris­dic­tions have few, if any, rules about how this infor­ma­tion is stored, who has access to it or how long it is kept. In many Ger­man elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams, author­i­ties delete all such infor­ma­tion after two months.

In con­trast, state con­tracts with elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing providers in Michi­gan and Flori­da require con­trac­tors to retain data for at least sev­en years. Through my years of research into elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing con­tracts, I deter­mined that while state or local author­i­ties usu­al­ly own elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing track­ing data, pri­vate com­pa­nies typ­i­cal­ly main­tain the data­bas­es. This gives rise to con­cerns about where this data may end up and if it could poten­tial­ly be monetized.

The dystopi­an night­mare doesn’t stop there. As sur­veil­lance devices, gril­lettes can also enforce racial­ized, class-based zon­ing. We already have trou­bling his­tor­i­cal prece­dent for racial­ized zon­ing, even with­out this tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty. Apartheid South Africa had a pol­i­cy called influx con­trol. Black peo­ple were issued a pass­book” which was like a domes­tic pass­port. For a Black per­son to enter a city, or even a cer­tain sec­tion of the city, they need­ed to have a per­mit stamped in their pass­book. Police were post­ed around the cities tasked with South Africa’s ver­sion of stop and frisk,” ask­ing Black peo­ple for their pass­book. If they didn’t have a per­mit to be where they were, they went to jail.

With GPS, the state no longer needs pass­books or cops on the cor­ner. Most of us already car­ry our pass­books with us in our cell­phones. So, apart from e‑carceration, we could even envi­sion a form of e‑gentrification, using tech­no­log­i­cal track­ing to keep cer­tain peo­ple out of the rar­efied areas des­ig­nat­ed for priv­i­leged con­sumers. While such sce­nar­ios are spec­u­la­tive, the exam­ple of South Africa shows that they are not out­side the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty. The point is that we don’t know where this tech­nol­o­gy is head­ed, and we can’t trust the com­pa­nies and politi­cians who are deter­min­ing its direction.

So what is to be done? Throw­ing away our cell­phones is unlike­ly to be the answer. Scrap­ping the term ankle bracelet” for gril­lette” or shack­le” is a start but hard­ly enough.

First, we need to legal­ly rec­og­nize that putting some­one on a mon­i­tor with house arrest is a depri­va­tion of lib­er­ty — a form of incar­cer­a­tion. Any­one on a mon­i­tor should be get­ting cred­it for time served, whether it is in pre-tri­al release or as part of a sen­tence (In most of the juris­dic­tions I have exam­ined through­out my years of research, this is not the case). And they should not be pay­ing fees for it.

Sec­ond, we need to seri­ous­ly reg­u­late access to track­ing infor­ma­tion so that it does not become a vehi­cle to facil­i­tate fur­ther pun­ish­ment or restric­tion of movement.

Third, we must rein in elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing as a busi­ness, to keep the net from widen­ing. The major play­ers in elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing are The GEO Group, a pri­vate-prison cor­po­ra­tion, and Secu­rus, a prison-phone prof­i­teer. These com­pa­nies doubt­less have strate­gic visions of how to expand their share in the mar­ket­place of tech­no­log­i­cal punishment.

Ulti­mate­ly, the path­way to end­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion is not devis­ing new puni­tive tech­nolo­gies nor re-pack­ag­ing cur­rent mea­sures by pre­tend­ing they are jew­el­ry. The path­way lies in tak­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple out of cages, stem­ming the admis­sion of new bod­ies and re-direct­ing resources to indi­vid­u­als who are released from prison to their com­mu­ni­ties. They need access to oppor­tu­ni­ties, not bracelets.”

James Kil­go­re is a for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed activist and researcher based in Urbana, Illi­nois. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Under­stand­ing Mass Incar­cer­a­tion: A People’s Guide to the Key Civ­il Rights Strug­gle of Our Time. He is cur­rent­ly a Soros Jus­tice Fel­low whose work involves build­ing a cam­paign, Chal­leng­ing E‑Carceration, which is focused on the issue of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing. He can be reached at waazn1@​gmail.​com or @waazn1. He would like to thank Ter­ri Barnes and Emmett Sanders for their work on this article.
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