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The First Step Act Opens the Door to Digital Incarceration

Just when people thought real justice was coming, the politicians strengthened the police state with new ways to take away people's freedom. The devious minds of the oppressor never cease working toward oppression.


The recent debates over the First Step Act and California’s SB-10 — two bills that attempt to address the overuse of incarceration in the US — have thrown the complexities of “criminal justice system reform” into the spotlight. Most attention has focused on sentencing reform and ending cash bail. But the struggles over these bills have brought another issue front and center that will be extremely critical in the long run: electronic monitoring. Both these laws, if enacted, (and many more to come) would precipitate a much wider use of e-carceration — the deprivation of liberty by means of technologies such as ankle monitors.

Fortunately, an increasing number of people are reaching the obvious conclusion: Electronic monitoring is not an alternative to incarceration but an alternative form of incarceration. With the monitor, our homes become our jails; our loved ones become our jailers. While this is an important realization, we need to dig deeper in responding to electronic monitors. As much as some of us may want them to go away, they are here and are going to be with us for a good while.

The United States has about 200,000 people on these devices right now with the numbers, especially among immigrants, steadily rising. Even the hinterlands are busting out e-shackles. Indianapolis seems to lead the nation’s cities in electronic monitoring with more than 4,000 peopleforced to wear ankle monitors. Those of us who oppose mass incarceration, especially if we adopt an abolitionist perspective, must respond to ankle monitors like we respond to prisons. Abolitionists oppose adding more prisons, push for people to be freed from them and try to close them down. When we can’t do any of that, we fight to reduce the harm by opposing torturous practices like solitary confinement, mandatory minimums and shackling mothers who are giving birth. To similarly oppose electronic monitors — which many activists call “digital prisons” — we must oppose new shackles, try to reduce the number in operation and reduce the harm being done by monitors.

In the contemporary moment, electronic monitors form the point of convergence between mass incarceration and the surveillance state. E-shackles not only act like an e-cage but also mimic a team of spies following people around, checking out where they go and who they hang out with, and noting all their personal habits. If they are undocumented or suspected of being “gang members,” shackles link them to their “partners in crime.”

The tracking data from GPS monitors blends in with all the other databases that profile and punish the criminalized sectors of the population — poor people who are disproportionately Black and Brown. As Virginia Eubanks stresses, these databases are part of “automating inequality.”


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