Confining people in jails and prisons isn’t the only way police officers, ICE agents, prosecutors, and judges control and restrict where people can go, what they can do, and what their daily lives are like. The state also has the power to incarcerate people where they live through electronic surveillance, which typically means making a person use an ankle monitor, but is also done with apps and other tracking methods.
Electronic tracking is a central means the state uses to keep people, most of whom are Black and brown, in its grasp before conviction and after sentencing, and in migrants’ cases, often without a clear timeline for resolution. Hundreds of thousands of people are subjected to some form of electronic monitoring a year.
The restrictions of electronic monitoring vary from person to person. Some people can never leave their homes, with even their yards classified as out of bounds. Others have strict schedules that dictate where they are at all times—if they go somewhere that isn’t on a pre-approved list, they’re liable to face greater limitations or other consequences. A person’s place of residence, effectively, becomes their prison, and they’re being watched at all times.
Electronic monitoring can be costly for those required to undergo it. That’s not only because some people are forced to pay for the devices they wear themselves, but more broadly because maintaining employment is difficult when a person can’t work for part of the week due to the demands of being monitored. For people who are just leaving prison or are immigrating to a new country, not being able to sustain a job can be devastating. Many people also deal with negative psychological effects as a result of electronic surveillance, which may also impact their family members and other loved ones.
Though people’s experiences with electronic surveillance vary, this much is clear: Living with an ankle monitor is far from freedom, even if it’s presented as an alternative to a traditional cage. VICE spoke to five people about how wearing an ankle monitor or being placed under another form of electronic surveillance changed their lives. All of their names except for one have been changed to protect their privacy and safety.
Abdoulaye*, 28, Queens, NY
I am an asylum seeker from Guinea who entered the United States through the southern border on November 1, 2018. I was taken into custody in Otay Mesa, San Diego, where I started my immigration process. I spent approximately four months in custody and was released on $5,000 bail to continue my proceedings outside of detention on the night of February 21, 2019. The night of my release, a monitor was placed on my ankle.
I left San Diego the next day for New York. A week after arriving, I went to the ICE office in Federal Plaza, and from there I was transferred to another office called ISAP (Intensive Supervision Appearance Program), which managed my surveillance. I wore the monitor for about 10 months. I had to go to the ISAP office on the last Thursday of every month, and every Wednesday I had to stay home from seven in the morning to six in the evening to await a home visit from ISAP.
My days were really painful—long and terrible. Wearing a monitor feels like a form of detention where you’re free physically, but mentally locked. I was never relaxed, and always felt the monitor on my body. If the monitor’s battery loses its charge, the monitor immediately goes off with vibrations and alerts. I received calls late at night from the ISAP office asking me where I was if the battery on the monitor died, or if they lost the monitor’s signal. Sometimes, even your loved ones aren’t spared by calls asking them if they know where you are.
In general, I slept little while I was wearing the ankle monitor, and my time sleeping was full of nightmares. In the daytime, if I wasn’t wearing clothes that covered the ankle monitor, no one would come near me. It was like a label that got stuck to me. In short, stress was my daily life.
Fortunately, after 10 months under surveillance, I’m no longer visiting the office thanks to the assistance of New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization aimed at supporting immigrants, and I’m able to continue my immigration process normally. It’s such a big relief for me and a huge weight off my shoulders. I’ve regained the freedom I’d previously lost.
Jeremey “Mohawk” Johnson, 26, Chicago, IL
On August 15, 2020, I was arrested after a widely publicized protest in the downtown Loop. Police officers met protesters, many of whom were women and minors, with military-grade riot gear and tear gas and incited a violent brawl. I, along with several other demonstrators, were beaten and kettled by police. Later that evening, I was followed and arrested for allegedly assaulting an officer with my skateboard.
The judge assigned to my first pre-trial hearing was widely known throughout Cook County for notoriously setting unaffordable bonds at the highest rate among all judges as well as issuing electronic monitoring to almost a third of his cases, despite the court’s opposition. Not only did he set my bond to $20,000, he placed me on electronic monitoring and restricted me from riding or possessing a skateboard for the remainder of my trial, which is anticipated to take place sometime within the next year.
Once my bail was paid by The Chicago Community Bond Fund, I was kept in custody for an additional three days (with no explanation other than COVID-19). Once released, I had to stay with a family friend for the first month of my house arrest because the Chicago Police Department revealed my personal details on their social media page and my housemates and I were receiving threats online. Eventually, I was able to move back.
All of the days since I’ve been on EHM (electronic home monitoring) have blended together. At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal, given that we were still in the midst of the pandemic and everyone was pretty much quarantining at home anyway. As time went on and I couldn’t even step outside for fresh air—or even step close to my front doorway because of the sensitivity of my monitor—the situation quickly took a toll on my mental health. I try to keep my days active to the best of my ability by exercising and making music with my housemates, but, admittedly, on most days, my routine mostly consists of watching TV, playing video games, and therapy. I don’t sleep much, but when I do, I’m abruptly awakened from vivid nightmares of the violence I experienced on the day of my arrest. People don’t understand that I witnessed police officers, in uniform, beat and brutalize innocent women and children. Even if I were able to go outside, the PTSD from that alone would carry into my day-to-day.
Typically, most defendants on EHM have to check in with officials other than for movement requests (to ask if they can leave their houses or go somewhere not on their schedule). But I have to communicate with the state almost every day due to technical malfunctioning on my ankle monitor. Since I live in a coach house (a rear house behind an apartment building), the signal emitted from my monitor is weak and frequently goes off, even though I’m always at the house. If I don’t keep track of these instances and report them to the sheriff’s office, they become “violations” and can potentially land me back in jail or be used against me by the prosecution in my upcoming trial.
Right before all of this happened, I had just released new music on various streaming platforms. I was getting into more of my other creative outlets, such as stand-up and comedy writing. Even more important, I was planning a trip to visit my mom in Mississippi. That’s the hardest part about all of this. I can’t see her. I can’t hug her. I can’t dance with her or watch Star Trek with her. That’s all I want, and that’s the first thing I’m gonna do once I’m out of this mess.
Clarissa*, 43, Bronx, NY
I tried to come to the United States from Honduras once before, in 2000, but was deported in 2008. When I returned again with my daughter in 2019, they held us in detention for about 14 days. When I was released, ICE put an ankle monitor on me, using the justification that they needed to monitor me considering my prior deportation. They explained nothing, but gave me some documentation telling me to present myself at 26 Federal Plaza on a certain date with no details about why.
Each time I went to 26 Federal Plaza, the ICE agents would ask me questions and give me a new date to come back in to be questioned. This happened monthly. These weren’t the only check-ins, though. Each Monday was a potential home visitation day; under no circumstances could I leave the house, even if no one came. I couldn’t go to the supermarket or leave the house with my daughter. If there was an emergency, I would have to furnish some kind of proof of the nature of the emergency because they could see that I had left the house. (Ultimately, I never experienced an emergency situation.) It was the worst experience of my life. It's marked me psychologically, as well as my daughter. She had to observe all of this. When the battery died, she would get frightened and run to grab the charger so the police wouldn’t come.
After several months, my ICE officer told me that I could get the shackle removed if I gave them my passport, so I did. This was the second time they took my passport, because they’d actually taken all of my documentation when I was first detained and told me that they would return it to me upon my arrival at the ICE office in New York. That never happened. I still went monthly to check in with them, asking each time when they would remove the ankle monitor. They said it was up to my supervising ICE officer, who had full decision-making power, regardless of the fact that I had given them my passport.
Eventually, after a few months, they removed the shackle. Instead, they monitor me through phone calls now. They call and make me enter a numerical code. I have to hustle to answer the phone, and they can call at any time. One evening, I must have left my phone on vibrate, and I didn't answer the call. This had never happened before, but the woman who called me back said it can never happen again, or she’d report me to my ICE officer for evading the calls. Still, the ankle monitor was much worse.
I appreciate the second opportunity to build my life here. If tomorrow, someone says, Hey, today's the day that it's your turn to leave the country, I will keep fighting my battle because I have rights. If that doesn’t work, I will always leave with my head held high because I know that I did the best I could here.
Jonathan*, 30, San Antonio, TX
I served 80 percent of my time in prison on a 10 year sentence for a charge that was a second degree felony. Now that I’ve been released, I have the most severe parole stipulations that I've seen or heard of. I am on a GPS monitor bigger than my cell phone. I’m required to carry the GPS monitor on me anytime I leave the house, and I have an ankle monitor as well. I spend well over 20 hours a week doing seven classes for my parole, plus I have to see my parole officer once a week. My classes, along with parole payments, cost $178 a month, and that doesn’t include the court fines I just paid yesterday that cost $398.
Every week, I’m required to make a schedule of everywhere I am going to go for that week. I cannot go anywhere unless it’s specified on my schedule. Even then, I am only allowed to do things for parole, work, shop for necessities, and one hour of religious services. I’m not allowed to go to families’ houses or go out for a bite to eat. I am not even allowed to go outside to my front or back yard, as that is considered “yard time” and I would need to get approved for that. After the first 90 days of me being out and doing good, I should receive eight hours of recreation time per week to where I can go to movies or a gym or bowling, but that has to be approved, as well. I only received one disciplinary case while incarcerated and I got my associate’s degree, and they still feel that I need this intensive supervision.
I am currently employed, and it was such a hassle to even get a job because I couldn't just show up at a place to apply—everything has to be on that schedule. My parole officer had to speak with my employer before I started working at my job, in order to notify them that my classes for parole are to be my main priority, and because they had to let my employer know what I was in prison for.
My GPS device must be on the charging dock when I am at the house. My GPS device has been acting up lately, beeping super loudly to notify me that I am too far away from it—while it is in my pocket. When my device malfunctions like this, my parole officer calls my father and stepmother (which has been happening every other night) to ask if they know where I am. I’m always at home. If my family does not answer the phone, a warrant would be issued for my arrest.
It is hard to be under surveillance like this. I have an intense amount of depression and suffer from mental breakdowns here and there because they are controlling all areas of my life. Honestly, I understand why people go back to prison. I had that discussion with my family one too many times: Prison was much easier. No one understands me when I say that. I had so many plans for when I got out, and I am not able to do anything that I really want to. The best way I can describe it is that, in prison, I was involved with almost everyone that I came across, and I helped people to stay sane in there. People opened up to me, and I was able to help them by being there for them and being available to them. Now, I just feel like I cannot help anyone at all because of the restrictions I’m under. That’s the most painful for me.
Salvador*, 35, Brooklyn, NY
I came here looking for a better life for myself, my wife, and our two children. We were fleeing the violence in Honduras. I had come to the U.S. once before in 2017, where I spent about a month in jail, signed a voluntary departure, and left. We came back in early 2019 and were detained for about a week before being released and put on ankle monitors.
At first, I had to report in with the ISAP people office once a month. I also had weekly home visits at the time, but ISAP ended up telling me that they weren’t going to do them anymore. So I left to find my children food to eat and failed my home visit. They called me after noticing that I left and told me I had to come to their office. Once I arrived, the ISAP rep told me that they were going to increase the supervision by making me come into their office to check in once every two weeks. They even threw my ISAP ID card on the floor. They didn't treat me like a human being—they treated me like an animal, and they humiliated me.
I was working at that time, and it was hard to maintain a job when there were two full days a week that I couldn't work because of the office visit and the home visit. That was really challenging for my family. We were often hungry. There were really difficult days. The effects on my children weren’t just physical. Sometimes they couldn’t even sleep, because they would worry, asking, “When will ICE come to take my father away?” Sometimes, they would just cry. Even my youngest son, who was two at the time, knew when the ankle monitor had low battery and how to charge it. He’d chime along with it as it rang: “Low battery, low battery, low battery.”
I had the ankle monitor for a year and two months. During this time, there was an incident where they called me at one in the morning and accused me of trying to remove the monitor. I told them they could come see me; that I was at home. The next day I had to go to the office to get the ankle monitor reviewed. The monitor was in perfect condition, but they still humiliated me. The ISAP people usually treat those of us with monitors so poorly.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was helping the father of my congregation with some mutual aid efforts. My ISAP supervisor knew I was part of the community, attending services and helping people. He decided that, because of this, he wanted to remove my ankle monitor. He said I shouldn’t be prevented from making a contribution to my community because of the monitor. I was so thankful to God and everyone who had supported me throughout this process. I still have to check in with ICE, but it’s much more spread out. My next check-in is in October.
I have hope now for the future. I’m hopeful we will get citizenship and I will be able to provide stability for my children to go to university, something that I never had the opportunity to do because of my circumstances at the time. You know, as I said previously, the past was really challenging. I’m thankful now to have hope.
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