As covid-19 began to spread earlier this year, it soon became clear that prisons and jails are particularly susceptible to outbreaks. In response, criminal justice systems around the world started looking for alternatives to incarceration.
Many turned to electronic ankle monitors as a solution. They used this technology to quickly relocate people from secure custody to the relative safety of their homes, and placed them under continuous electronic supervision. At the same time, courts in the US and Australia began to experiment with using ankle monitors for an entirely different purpose—enforcing quarantine orders.
The pandemic has subtly normalized the expanded use of ankle monitors around the world. This is a worrisome trend that we shouldn’t allow to go unexamined. Previous research suggests that ankle monitors do not conclusively reduce recidivism, and the technology has no history as a tool for enforcing compliance with public health orders. In fact, frequent and long-standing criticism of monitors charges that their use causes significant harm.
For example, ankle monitors can impose financial burdens on wearers, who are often required to cover the expense of wearing a monitor themselves: they pay private companies, hired by states and counties, fees in the range of $3 to $35 per day, which can amount to hundreds of dollars per month. Such fee structures have led some to refer to ankle monitors as a present-day debtor’s prison.
Furthermore, monitors cause some wearers physical discomfort or pain. And they carry a social stigma because they’re widely associated with the criminal justice system, and with violent offenders specifically. In this sense, being required to wear an ankle monitor is akin to wearing a criminal record on one’s body—like a digital scarlet letter.
To make matters worse, ankle monitors are prone to technical glitches such as signal loss and drift, prohibitively short battery life, and inaccurate alerts sent to monitoring agencies. Such errors further complicate the lives of people required to wear them.
The recent surge in monitor use unfolded without sufficient concern for wearers or their communities. It’s a clear case of “surveillance creep”—the growth of surveillance tactics and systems beyond the circumstances for which they were initially intended.
Around the world, the rapid spread of covid prompted many public health measures that have been intrusive. Dozens of governments began rolling out contact tracing apps. In China, people were required to wear a digital wristband and download the StayHomeSafe app, which worked together to enforce quarantine requirements. Travelers returning to India and Bangladesh received hand stamps that marked them as meant to be in quarantine. In the US, states issued stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.
However, unlike these virus-specific measures, the increased use of ankle monitors won’t necessarily end when the health emergency does. Ankle monitors predate the virus, and it’s unclear how their heightened use will be reassessed when the virus is no longer a threat.