Migrants Say They’re Being Electrocuted by ICE-Mandated Ankle Monitors

A new report says the bulky GPS surveillance devices are causing pain and discomfort for those forced to wear them.
July 16, 2021, 2:44pm
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For months, Ms. C couldn’t sleep through the night. After being released from Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody, she was ordered to wear an electronic ankle monitor that needed to be charged every 4 to 5 hours. She told lawyers at the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic that the device “hurt the backside of [her] ankle," and gave her "lacerations, … numbness … [and] sores,” according to interview notes provided to Motherboard. She requested another model. 

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But now, the alternative, bulkier ankle monitor electrocutes her four times whenever it runs out of battery and when it is fully charged.

Ms. C, who requested anonymity, isn’t alone. One in five surveyed individuals reported getting electric shocks from the ICE-mandated shackles, according to a new report by Freedom for Immigrants, the Immigrant Defense Project, and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The finding is “alarming and worrisome,” according to Layla Razavi, Deputy Executive Director of Freedom For Immigrants. 

“We've been familiar with ankle shackles for years now. And I was quite shocked,” Razavi told Motherboard. “Not just that it's happening, but at the rate at which it's happening.” 

Participants also reported aches, pains and cramps, excessive heat, numbness, inflammation, scarring, cuts, and bleeding from the shackles. Sixty-five percent of participants said that the devices negatively impacted their physical health on a “constant” basis.  

It is unclear whether some electronic shackles—which are used to monitor people on probation or house arrest—are designed to administer shocks, or if the device is malfunctioning. Some devices used in the criminal legal system are designed to shock individuals at the whim of a guard, like a shock collar. However, the various models sold by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of private prison company GEO Group that sells the devices to ICE through a $2.2 billion contract, are advertised only as remote GPS monitoring devices and are not designed to shock wearers. 

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In response to a request for comment, a GEO Group spokesperson denied that the company's devices cause the harms described in the report.

“The allegation that BI GPS devices are in any way physically unsafe for the individuals wearing them is blatantly false," the spokesperson wrote. "BI has conducted extensive device testing, including employees wearing devices for extended periods of time. Throughout device development and testing, and during field usage by participants, there is no proof or known instance in which BI devices have generated enough power or heat to cause shocks or burns."

ICE did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment at the time of publishing. 

ICE’s stated purpose for its so-called Alternatives To Detention (ATD) division, which includes electronic monitoring, is to “manage compliance with release conditions, court hearings and final orders of removal.” GPS coordinates are collected as frequently as every three minutes and uploaded at least once every four hours. ICE receives an alert if an individual leaves their assigned geographic location.

ICE’s surveillance of migrants outside of traditional jails and prisons through ATD’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) has exploded alongside a massive expansion of US immigration enforcement powers. In the last 20 years, the US has deported over twice as many people as it has in the country’s entire history. 

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“ICE has been very responsive to the demands of the private prison industry. And the private prison industry has been exceedingly nimble when it comes to adapting to general public sentiment,” Razavi said. “As people have become more and more skeptical about the whole practice of immigration detention, and rightly so, there's been a call to look for more humane alternatives that do not include locking people up behind bars. But I think as our report demonstrates, this [electronic monitoring] is really no alternative at all.” 

As of May 28, 2021, 89,115 people were monitored through ATD. People enrolled in ISAP are subject to home visits, telephone check-ins, and sometimes curfews. Approximately one-third of ISAP enrollees are forced to wear electronic monitoring devices. Black immigrants are disproportionately ordered to wear the devices, the report found

While shackle-induced electric shocks are not well understood, and seem to be underreported, the phenomenon isn’t new. A 2020 report by the California Law Review featured the story of a woman who was rushed to the hospital after suffering “a strong electric shock and a sharp pain in her chest” from her ankle monitor. After filing a complaint with ISAP and asking for the device’s removal, the ISAP officer in charge of her case told her that this experience “was normal,” according to her complaint letter. Another woman’s device burst into flames while she unplugged it, leaving her with permanent scarring from the burns.

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The report comes on the heels of the Biden’s administration’s effort to increase ICE’s reliance on ATD programs. The administration's 2022 budget aims to increase the number of people enrolled in such programs by 45,000, n claiming that surveilling people at home is more humane than incarcerating them in jails and prisons.  

However, the dramatic growth of ISAP has not resulted in any decrease in ICE’s incarceration rates. “Since the creation of the Immigration Supervision Appearance Program, which was supposedly designed to reduce the number of people detained, the number of people who have been detained by ICE has more than doubled,” Tosca Giustini, a clinical student at Cardozo School of Law who helped develop the report, told Motherboard.  

And even if incarceration rates had decreased, advocates and people who have been shackled say the devices are alternative forms of detention, not alternatives to detention. “ICE says that the ankle shackle is this discreet, harmless alternative to detention that doesn't actually hurt people,” said Giustini, “But that's not true. It causes all sorts of really serious physical and mental and social traumas.”

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A vast majority of surveyed individuals said the devices caused them to experience anxiety, sleeplessness—partially due to the device beeping throughout the night—depression, and social isolation. Twelve percent had suicidal thoughts. Many lost their jobs or had difficulty obtaining work because of the shackle.   

“When I was in prison in my country, I was attacked and beaten,” said one unnamed individual quoted in the report. “The ankle shackle reminds me of this and makes me feel constantly stressed, afraid and despairing. It reminds me of my torture and I cannot stop thinking about it, as if I am still in prison. The ankle shackle is the worst thing for my health right now. I feel desperate.”   

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of people shackled with electronic monitors in the criminal legal system grew from 53,000 to 125,000. And while the current national figure is unknown, the pandemic has led to an increased reliance on ankle shackles. 

Advocates suggest that instead of surveilling and shackling people, the government should ensure everyone has legal representation—which isn’t a guarantee in immigration court—and provide people with resources, such as child care, to help them attend their hearings. “Our data found that individuals who were not shackled, and were given legal representation had similar appearance rates as people who were shackled and given legal representation,” said Giustini. Razavi recommends withholding funding for ISAP and for ICE to terminate the program.

“Punitive systems that are designed to punish and surveil people haven't worked. They've turned a massive profit for the private prison industry. But they haven't done anything to support immigrants, to help people adjust their immigration status so they can stay legally and safely in this country,” said Razavi. “They've only served to create more harm for people who have usually already suffered a fair degree of trauma when they get to the border to ask for help.”