What You Should Know – MediaJustice

What You
Should Know

Overview of Electronic Monitoring

What is Electronic Monitoring?

Electronic Monitoring (EM) is rapidly expanding in the United States. While EM is marketed as an “evidence-based” alternative to incarceration, it’s an alternative form of incarceration and surveillance. While EM proponents refer to these devices as ankle bracelets, we refer to them as shackles since they are not jewelry. They restrict an individual’s liberty, limit their privacy, disrupt family relationships, and may jeopardize their financial security. In addition, the devices may cause physical harm or be traumatizing to those forced to wear them 

The first electronic monitors emerged in the mid-60s, as a “soft” alternative by the state for people with relatively minor cases.

Today, authorities primarily apply electronic monitors to four populations: 

People on pretrial release.

Individuals who have completed a prison or jail sentence and have EM as a condition of their parole or probation.

Immigrants under the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Youth under the supervision of the juvenile court. 

Monitors are also occasionally used: 

As a form of punishment and dehumanization outside of incarceration in a jail or prison.

To detect alcohol in a person’s perspiration when they have a conviction for DUI.

As an alternative to incarceration for privileged people, like in the cases of Paul Manafort and Paris Hilton,  who were permitted to live their life of luxury while they awaited trial.

By bail bond companies to monitor individuals for whom they have paid bail.

Who does Electronic Monitoring affect?

E-Carceration is a racial justice issue; Electronic Monitoring disproportionately harms Black and brown communities. 

The few jurisdictions where we have data on EM demonstrate racial disparities similar to the criminal legal system as a whole. 

  • In Cook County, Black people generally comprise about 70% of the jail population and 70% of the EM population while making up only 25% of the county population.
  • According to 2018 communications to MediaJustice from EM authorities in Marion County, Indiana (where Indianapolis is located), Black people comprised 50% of those on monitoring in a county where 29% of the population is Black. 
  • In San Francisco, a county where Black people make up just 5% of the general population, the Sheriff’s annual review of EM showed that Black people constituted 44% of those on electronic monitoring in 2019. 
  • A 2020 survey of immigrants on devices showed that Black immigrants were far more likely than other immigrants to be placed on GPS.

Why Does It Matter?

EM perpetuates racism. The criminal legal system in the U.S. is deeply rooted in racism, especially anti-Black racism. We currently have limited data on the demographics of electronic monitoring because many jurisdictions do not publicly disclose or even track this kind of data. However, the data that we do have suggests that, like the rest of the U.S. criminal legal system, EM disproportionately affects Black and brown people and communities.

EM widens the net of incarceration. Monitoring is making homes into jail cells and turning Black and brown communities into open-air prisons, continuing the punishment and mass incarceration process that has been going on for decades, in some cases for centuries.

How Do We Respond?

We need strong movements to abolish EM and free people from e-carceration. While we continue to press for the abolition of the prison industrial complex, we fight to eliminate the harms caused by electronic monitors and other forms of punitive technology that we label e-carceration. We need long-term, sufficient political power to eradicate EM to free people from its immediate harm.

MediaJustice offers this toolkit as a method to build that long-term power to abolish EM while also addressing the immediate harms of these devices in people’s lives.


Most devices have a plastic box about the size of a cigarette box with an attached plastic band that wraps around the ankle. The devices typically weigh 4 to 6 ounces.

This band and the monitor are attached to a person’s leg 24 hours a day. The devices transmit information via a cell phone system, wi-fi, or a landline phone.

There are two major types of monitors:
Radio Frequency Monitors (often called “Curfew Monitors”) – Only alert authorities if the individual under EM is at home.
GPS Monitors – Track and record a person’s location 24/7.

Most monitors have a detachable battery pack that is part of the box. The battery has to be charged for several hours a day. If the battery goes flat, the individual under EM can be sent back to jail. Recently the technology has been changing; some companies are shifting from plastic bands to metal bands, while other companies are adding two-way communication to their devices so that authorities can talk to the person on the monitor, receive audio communications from the device, or listen in on the individual under EM. Some EM systems are moving away from devices on the person’s leg and changing to a cell phone app or a wristband.

There’s no evidence that Electronic Monitoring has positive benefits.

  • No substantial evidence exists that electronic monitors provide any benefits to those who must wear them.
  • State and local authorities who contract with EM companies do not hold them accountable. Typically these companies do not have to produce reports, assessments or evaluations of the performance of the devices.  Most jurisdictions cannot even produce a racial or gender breakdown of who is on a monitor or how many people are returned to jail due to violating the rules of electronic monitoring.

The effectiveness of Electronic Monitoring is not evidence-based but functions as part of a mythology perpetuated by the drivers of the prison industrial complex. This mythology contains several false notions that punishment improves people’s character, that limiting the freedom of targeted populations makes us all safe, and that technology alone will solve our social, political, and economic problems. 

Movement Restrictions

Most people on a shackle are on house arrest, and need to get special permission from authorities to leave their house. Securing permission can take a long time or may be denied. Restrictions on movement pose difficulties for people trying to find a job, accessing medical services, participating in parenting, and caregiving.

In some jurisdictions, people are on 24/7 house arrest, and are only allowed out of the house for medical appointments and court dates. This often means that individuals under EM are unable to seek emergency medical attention, putting them in a dilemma of having to choose between the risk of health complications and the risk of reincarceration.

People on EM often refer to it as a “set-up,” a situation where the rules are so strict that you are set up to fail. If the bus bringing you home from work arrives late or the power goes off in your apartment, even though these events are not your fault, they can still result in your reincarceration. 

Physical Reactions to the Device

A large number of people experience physical reactions to the monitoring devices. These reactions may take the form of sores on their leg, numbness in their feet or ankle, a sensation of electric shock, or even changes in their menstrual cycle.

A survey of 147 immigrants who were on monitors in 2019 revealed more than 70% of them reported “aches, pains, and cramps”related to the device. One in five persons experienced electric shocks from the monitor.

Impact on Loved Ones

These devices often negatively impact family members and loved ones of those on the monitor. Family members may have to carry out basic tasks for an individual under EM, such as doing laundry or shopping, since many authorities will not grant movement for such activities. Many monitors do not even allow a person to step onto their front doorstep or take out the garbage.

EM regimes have a disparate gender impact. Since the vast majority of individuals on pretrial EM are released from men’s jails,  the burden of caretaking for them when they are on house arrest typically falls on mothers, grandmothers, partners, and sisters.

Financial Burdens

People often have to pay daily user fees to be on the monitor, which typically ranges from $5 to $25 per day. In some jurisdictions, people are sent back to jail or prison if they fail to pay their monitoring fees. These fees often have to be borne by family or loved ones, because finding employment is very difficult for individuals under EM. Hence, those who are forced to wear EM devices are also being forced to pay for their own imprisonment. 

Electronic Monitors often block a person’s access to Due Process in their legal case, replicating the impact of being in jail with a high bail. Because jail conditions are often horrendous, many people with unaffordable cash bail opt to take a plea bargain just to get out of jail–sometimes even when they are innocent. Similarly, being on extended house arrest with daily fees may pressure a person to accept a plea deal just to get rid of the restrictions of the monitor and the daily costs. This means that ultimately the person is not able to exercise their right to a jury trial.

Electronic monitors have many technical flaws. Most crucially, they often report a person’s location incorrectly. For example:

  • Mohawk Johnson, who was on a monitor in Chicago from 2020 to 2021 reported that he received more than 60 calls from monitoring authorities accusing him of being outside his home when he was sitting inside his apartment. He recorded a number of these interactions in videos he posted on Twitter.
  • A Milwaukee man reported that his monitor once placed him in the middle of Lake Michigan.

When the monitor reports a person being in a forbidden location, it may set off an alarm or, in some jurisdictions, an automatic warrant for the person’s arrest. In some jurisdictions, a dead battery can trigger a warrant for arrest.

  • If technical flaws in the device result in an entry of violating monitoring rules in a person’s court record, they can contribute to harsher sentencing or more restrictive parole conditions.

Important Note: Pointing out their technical flaws is not an argument for more accurate monitors, it merely highlights the fact that these devices are dangerous in many ways, including producing false evidence used to punish people.

Yes. Once electronic monitors gained GPS capacity in the early 2000s, they became capable of surveilling and gathering data on individuals.

Today, some EM devices can capture a range of biometrics–voice, iris, heart, and respiration rates. They may also be linked to other devices that record gait, palm prints, ear lobes, and data on family members. In most cases, people on monitors have no control over what happens to this data. Because EM providers typically store this data on cloud services owned by Big Tech firms, like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and IBM, the data for individuals under EM is often sold to or shared with commercial firms or other law enforcement and immigration authorities.

Monitors may reduce the costs to a local authority or department of corrections, but many of those costs are then shifted onto the person on the monitor or their loved ones. However, using Electronic Monitoring does not always save law enforcement money. When people are released from jail on a monitor, the authorities still have to pay the fixed costs of running a jail: salaries, electric power, and water. Unless putting people on a monitor reduces staffing or operating costs, EM may not save money for the authorities. In fact, they may even have to hire additional staff to run the EM program.

Nearly every county in the U.S. has an Electronic Monitoring contract with a private company. Though there are dozens of EM providers across the county, five companies dominate the industry.

CARCERAL CONGLOMERATES profiting from E-Carceration:

These companies also have contracts for electronic monitoring with state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons. BI has a monopoly on providing electronic monitors to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

There is no national system of electronic monitors. With the exception of the ICE system and a national system for individuals under the authority of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, electronic monitoring operates at a local level. In fact, most counties and states have their own separate, private contract(s) with one of the companies that supply the devices either for rental or purchase.

That’s why we need your help to ban or block Electronic Monitoring at the state and local levels.

To find out more about how electronic monitoring operates in various states and local jurisdictions, we have produced this interactive map which includes policies, legislation, and stories of impacted people from across the county.