House Arrest Is Touted as a Humane Punishment. It’s Not.

Electronic monitoring incarcerates people who might otherwise be on probation — and makes them pay for it themselves

Photo: /Getty Images

“If I had just done time, I would’ve been done by now.”— Patricia, under house arrest in Indiana

The “crime” Patricia, mother of five, committed was an odd one: She climbed through her best friend’s window to retrieve a bottle of her own medication. She and her friend had “open-door policies” and visited each other’s Indiana homes daily, including when the other wasn’t present — but her friend’s husband was not on friendly terms with Patricia, and one day he called the cops on her. Though all theft and drug charges were dropped (since the medication she took was her own), Patricia retained a low-level “felony burglary” charge — she’d entered a home without the permission of the leaseholder. Her caseworker and everyone involved expressed complete faith that she would never do this again. Nevertheless, the prosecutor pursued the felony burglary charge, which carries a minimum of 10 years in prison. Her lawyer advised her to plead guilty to a lesser offense for five years under house arrest and another five years of probation. When she took the plea, the public defender told her there was a good chance she would be free within six months, saying, “They’re going to realize you’re not a criminal.”

Three years later, Patricia remains under house arrest — trapped in her own home for a “crime” that harmed no one.

Patricia’s predicament may sound bizarre, but it is symptomatic of a growing trend. Today, by very conservative estimates, more than 130,000 people across the country are tethered by electronic monitoring (EM). EM for people accused or convicted of crimes grew about 140% between 2005 and 2015, as the practice rippled across the country.

However, EM doesn’t function only as prison’s replacement. It also widens the net of the criminal legal system, sweeping into its clutches people who otherwise might never be subject to state-sanctioned confinement. A study by the Pew Center on the States, a division of the Pew Charitable Trusts that focuses on state-level public policy analysis, pointed out that EM is now commonly used both as an “alternative” punishment and “as an adjunct to traditional community supervision practices.”

In other words, people like Patricia who once might have been simply assigned to probation are now locked in their homes, on monitors. A 2012 in the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy noted that most people on EM haven’t been convicted of violent offenses, and if EM was not an option, “at least some of these populations would not in fact be incarcerated or otherwise under physical control.”

Today’s electronic monitoring technology has made house arrest more restrictive than ever. Under house arrest, a person must stay inside their home unless they obtain preauthorization from the court or probation officer to leave the house for a specific destination that is considered essential. That destination might be work, school, the probation office, the grocery store, or a doctor’s appointment. However, that destination is almost never a child’s school performance, a movie theater, a birthday celebration, or a friend’s home.

There’s almost always a stringent limit on the number of hours one can spend outside the house. The Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio’s monitoring program, for instance, allows out-of-home family celebrations only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. A trip to the library is allowed only for an employment opportunity (not for story time or even to borrow books); everyday tasks such as grocery shopping and laundry are allowed only if “no other person in the household can provide this service.” If the person deviates from the approved schedule, even by stopping en route to an approved destination, they risk reincarceration.

Scheduling proves nearly impossible for some, especially for parents. Yet requesting last-minute changes to the schedule can put a person who is under monitoring on their probation officer’s bad side. That doesn’t just make for grumbles and tiresome phone conversations; violating the terms of house arrest or monitoring often means prison, sometimes for an even longer sentence than originally issued.

Granted, people usually (though not always) prefer electronic monitoring to prison. However, monitoring still qualifies as a brutal penalty. Many people on house arrest will tell you that being forced to remain inside your house transforms it into a kind of jail, contorting the very definition of “home.” Depending on one’s housing situation, staying in the house may mean remaining in a single room, day in and day out, with little access to food and basic necessities (especially for those who live in neighborhoods with few local grocery options). In addition to being shackled with an electronic monitor, some must also wear an alcohol or drug monitor, allowing external authorities to gauge their intake from afar. Officers can intrude into the home at any moment to make sure the arrestee remains sealed inside.

In all states except Hawaii and in Washington, D.C., those on monitoring are required to fork over fees.

EM has also expanded to entangle people who have not been accused of any crimes, including immigrants. When immigration enforcement was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, community-based alternatives to detention were jettisoned in favor of the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, which relies on EM. According to conservative estimates, on any given day, an additional 38,000 immigrants are shackled by electronic monitors. That number is growing. Yet the rate of detention has not declined due to the addition of electronic shackles. Instead, it has soared from 34,000 to more than 40,000. EM simply allows for more people to be caught in ICE’s net, whether in physical detention beds or sleeping in their own beds with monitors shackled to their ankles. Being caught in ICE’s net can have dire consequences: The agency uses data gathered from monitors to plan workplace raids, according to scholar Daniel Gonzalez, who researches ICE’s use of GPS devices.

Meanwhile, the availability of EM technology has resulted in an increasing number of people on parole — people who have already served their court-imposed prison sentence — being placed on monitors and subjected to constant surveillance. As with all other incarnations of the criminal legal system, these additional sanctions are disproportionately likely to be imposed on people of color and the poor, literally weighing down their bodies with state control. For example, Black people in Cook County, Illinois, represent 70% of people on EM but only 24% of the area’s population.

In most cases, the cost of electronic monitoring falls not upon the court or county, but on the person shackled to the device. That means tens of thousands of Americans are paying for their own house arrest.

And corporations are profiting. As the political tide has turned toward the prospect of “humane punishment,” the profiteers are carving out fresh strategies for transforming confinement into hundreds of millions of dollars. Since 2014, the private corporation Offender Management Services (OMS) has monopolized the realm of electronic monitoring in Richland County, South Carolina. The company charges a setup fee of $179, then $9.25 per day (or approximately $300 per month) thereafter. Those who can’t afford the cost are sent to jail. Often, whether you qualify for — or are allowed to stay on — “humane” punishment depends on the size of your wallet.

The practice of forcing people to pay for their own confinement isn’t unique to OMS. In all states except Hawaii and in Washington, D.C., those on monitoring are required to fork over fees. This applies not only to adults on monitoring but also to parents whose children are placed under supervision. As the American Bar Association outlines in its study of juvenile electronic monitoring, when a child is sentenced to a monitor, even the most indigent parents are required to pay the associated fees, as well as the ancillary costs of house arrest, which can include landline phones, random drug and Breathalyzer tests, and additional equipment. If they cannot pay, the study notes, the service may be terminated. When the “service is terminated,” incarceration often ensues.

Although some reformers emphasize the supposed humaneness of house arrest, ultimately its most touted advantage is the reduced cost to the county or state. When a person is on home confinement instead of in prison, the county or state is relieved of the obligation to provide for their basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and health care. Instead, those responsibilities are placed squarely onto the confined person and their family. If the person is unable to meet their own needs while confined—not an uncommon circumstance, given the slew of obvious obstacles—well, that’s their problem.

In Indiana, Patricia has paid $115 per week over three years for her monitor. It’s a steep price, especially since for most of that time she was unable to find employment. That’s in part because of her felony record and in part because restaurant and other service industry employers worry that an employee with an ankle monitor might deter customers. Her family of seven was forced to rely primarily on her husband’s income.

Patricia’s caseworker told her repeatedly that payments for the monitor had to take priority over her family’s basic needs. Her family went through one winter without heat and one summer without air conditioning to afford the monitor. They became unable to afford car payments, and so their car was repossessed. While Patricia bought her children’s clothes a year ahead of time to take advantage of sales, she and her husband were forced to forgo new clothes, haircuts, and nonemergency health care for themselves. When Patricia wanted to enroll her four-year-old son in preschool, her caseworker told her it was “non-necessary” and that she should instead put those funds toward her monitor.

Patricia and her family scrimped and saved, cutting painful corners. Nevertheless, in September 2015, she was still nearly $800 behind in her payments. Eleven months later, that figure had more than doubled to $1,900. Her caseworker told her that, solely because of her debt, the county planned to extend her sentence “indefinitely” until the payments were made.

Copyright © 2020 by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. This excerpt is adapted from , published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law are the co-authors of Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms. @mayaschenwar and @LVikkimL

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