Here’s What the World Will Look Like After Mass Incarceration

America's prison-industrial complex incentivizes imprisonment and disproportionately hurts minorities. Now, pols are vowing to end it. But what will that actually look like?

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Ending mass incarceration has become a cause célèbre on the left of this year’s presidential race.

Bernie Sanders has been vocal in denouncing the private prison industry— but Hillary Clinton went a step further and agreed to stop taking campaign contributions from the corporations that run them.

Both Democratic frontrunners seems to be scrambling to one-up each other on this key issue, but little to nothing concrete has been said by either as to what this seismic shift might actually look like—or how it will come about.

So what will a future America—one that doesn’t have the highest prison population on Earth, like it does now—actually look like?

One little talked about practice might be one of the most important methods for criminals of the future: electronic monitoring or house arrest. It’s often called the “alternative to incarceration.”

Right now, home confinement is usually meted out either in place of imprisonment, as a form of parole or even a pre-trail measure. It frequently requires an offender to wear an ankle bracelet, complete with GPS, that lets the authorities know where they are at all times.

If you break the rules, an alarm sounds. You might end up fined or even back in prison.

Two companies have the market cornered on electronic monitoring: BI and 3m. BI is a subsidiary of Geo Group, the second-largest private prison company in the world after CCA—both of whom Clinton agreed to stop accepting campaign funds from earlier this fall.

Athough, Clinton advocated for increased use of “alternative punishments” for low-level offenders. By that, she means ankle bracelets.

With the landscape of incarceration promising to shift in coming years and pressure from both sides of the political spectrum to reduce America’s bloated prison population—are these technological “alternatives” the next market for private companies seeking to profit off incarceration?

GEO Group already contracts with ICE to put ankle bracelets on asylum seekers detained at the U.S./Mexico border—and of the 4,348 low-level Federal prisoners recently slated for release nearly 80% will be living in half-way houses or placed in home confinement.

“We have never once lobbied or campaigned to increase sentencing,” said Shayn March, vice president of finance for GEO Group, during a meeting at a syndicated loan conference this year.

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“You hear candidate Hillary Clinton talk a lot about how we have too many people in prison. There’s never been any influence. It’s one of the most obscene things I’ve ever heard—but it is often said in the media.”

So what’s the big deal? Isn’t wearing an ankle bracelet a better deal for someone who just broke the law than going to prison?

“Yeah, it’s better than being in prison,” says James Kilgore, author of Understanding Mass Incarceration and a newly released report, “Electronic Monitoring Is Not the Answer.

“But that’s not really the right question.”

The argument for the use of electronic monitoring is that it allows low-level offenders to do their time without the added dangers of a toxic prison environment. In theory, it allows offenders to work, be with their families, access services and be productive citizens, in the meantime placing far less of a burden on taxpayers, but inhibits them from leaving the house for recreation.

Are ankle bracelets and house arrest really “prison-lite”? Or is this the most intensive form of government control beyond prison walls?

The jury is still out on whether this technology is really the great alternative it’s often made out to be.

“Most people automatically assume you’re a child molester when they see it,” continues Kilgore, who spent a year on an ankle bracelet after being released from federal prison, “and no one wants to employ someone with a big piece of plastic on their ankle.”

“As a society we’ve become more and more punitive even though crime is at its lowest rate ever,” says Jeremy Travis, the president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“We put people in prison for offenses that would have received a light sanction in former times. In that context electronic monitoring and other low-cost technological interventions can be seen as a modern tool for a problem that’s exploded over the last 40 years.”

Kate Weisburd, a lawyer with the East Bay Community Law Center in California who’s had many clients placed in an ankle bracelet, agrees that it’s an imperfect solution.

“I think there’s a huge disconnect between policymakers and those of us that see this play out up close and personal,” says Weisburd.

“It’s an attractive, shiny new toy,” continues Weisburd, “but we simply don’t have enough data yet. There’s no evidence that it results in less jail time, [or] saves money, let alone rehabilitates.”

Electronic monitoring is also far cheaper than traditional confinement, and added incentive for fiscal conservatives like Derek Cohen, deputy director of Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime.

“We spend far too many taxpayer dollars on things we are not getting good return on,” says Cohen.

“Electronic monitoring isn’t rehabilitative in and of itself, but in many cases it makes more sense. Putting low level offenders in a carceral setting risks turning that individual into a greater crime risk when they get out.”

Weisburd thinks that electronic monitoring isn’t just financially punitive to the prisoner. It’s a weight on a prisoner’s whole family.

“When we talk about electronic monitoring being cheaper we often forget about the cost to the family,” Weisburd adds. “In Alameda County it’s 15 dollars a day. There’s a cost-shifting mechanism at play. The county is trying to shift the cost of incarceration onto the family.”

One of Weisburd’s clients, who will remain nameless since he’s a juvenile, was 15 years old at the time of his arrest, with an IQ barely above the cut-off for mental retardation. A judge placed him on electronic monitoring for stealing two pairs of sneakers and throwing rocks at cars.

“All they’re given is a long list of rules and if their child violates any of them they can go straight to juvie,” she says.

Weisburd’s office did an assessment and found that the regulations for electronic monitoring require an 11th-grade reading level. She says one of the first things her client’s mother had to do was buy him a cellphone so he could report in to his probation officer.

“It puts their lives under a microscope,” continues Weisburd. “Families that are already struggling now have to plan their lives 48 hours in advance.”

Weisburd says her client was in and out of juvenile hall 10 times over the span of a year and a half, mostly for violating the conditions of his ankle monitor: staying out too late, not calling in to report his whereabouts, and finally cutting the bracelet off his leg completely.

“I highly doubt my client would have been sentenced to jail for this offense in the first place. This begs the question: is this really an alternative to incarceration?”

“It’s not an alternative at all,” says Kilgore, “It’s virtual incarceration. How can you get a felony escape charge for something that’s not defined as incarceration?”

If electronic monitoring was treated like what it is, Kilgore continues, a form of imprisonment, prisoners would be afforded more rights and would receive credit toward their sentence for the time they serve confined to their own homes.

People subjected to this practice, Kilgore argues, often have even fewer rights than prisoners.

Ernest Shephard, a formerly incarcerated man Kilgore interviewed for his report, said the ankle bracelet made him feel “like a chattel slave.”

“If I don’t rebel,” Shepard said, “what kind of dude am I?”

In some cases, a GPS chip embedded inside a person’s phone or ankle bracelet tracks everywhere they go. People are only allowed to shop at one or two stores in town, they constantly have to report their whereabouts, and there is no leeway given for scheduling demands from a doctor or employer.

“You can be sent back to prison for getting back to your house five minutes late when the bus breaks down,” says Kilgore. With all this hassle and risk, Kilgore writes, some people end up never leaving their homes.

“In Europe, the mentality is completely different,” Kilgore continues. “They situate people on electronic monitoring in an environment with a whole range of services that will enable them to reintegrate in the community. In the state of Illinois you get 10 dollars when you get out of prison. There’s no support at all.”

Apart from inhibiting rehabilitation, Weisburd argues that ankles bracelets aren’t a deterrent for kids. In fact, it may even normalize various degrees of incarceration, making it “cool” in the classroom to sport an ankle bracelet.

“Whether it acts as a scarlet letter or a badge of honor, both are a problem,” says Weisburd.

“Deterrence simply doesn’t work for kids. That’s not how their brains work. They’re already troubled or rebellious, they’re not thinking about long-term consequences. That’s why they end up cutting them off.”

Personal data collected by electronic monitoring and GPS is also completely unregulated. A company called STOP boasts that it saves the data collected for a minimum of seven years.

Some fear that increasing use of this technology casts a wider net for government to surveil private citizens.

“We should always be cautious about expanding the power of the state,” says Travis. “This is highly intrusive government intervention in the lives of individuals. Prisons are such an intrusion, and electronic monitoring is, as well.”

Travis warns that it could make recidivism tougher. After all, if someone were to monitor every moment of every private citizen, wouldn’t it eventually catch even the saintliest American breaking the law?

“This technology has enormous value and power,” says Travis. “It should not to be used lightly. Sometimes being overly intrusive can be counter-productive. If you supervise people really intensively you catch them violating all sorts of rules. That doesn’t help with recidivism.”

“Providers are always looking for new markets,” says Kilgore. “Like school kids who have a history of truancy, people with mental illness, substance abuse problems and immigrants—segments of the population that haven’t even committed a crime.”

And this could present a much more deleterious, long-term effect for a citizen who never would have gotten caught in jail.

“If this information gets in the wrong hands people can lose their benefits, employment—or even get locked up again—you might get denied a house loan because of a petty theft charge you got 20 years ago.”

What will incarceration look like in 10 or 15 years? Will reforms and “alternatives to incarceration” truly end our system of mass incarceration and the misery it’s unleashed—or will it simply repackage the punitive mindset that led us here in the first place?

“Freedom is the best alternative to incarceration,” Travis continues. “It’s not a program. It’s a value. When we restrict freedom we always need to ask: at what purpose, for what population?”

“We have politicians that want to decarcerate as a quick-fix way to save tax dollars,” says Kilgore, “but that’s just going to shift the misery outside prison walls. In order to reverse the damage done to communities decimated by mass incarceration you have to invest that money in those communities.”

“Of course we need more programs,” says Travis, “but just because we don’t have all the social services our communities need in place doesn’t mean we should keep people in prison. I’d like to hear someone make that argument to someone sitting in a jail cell.’

Or, as Weisburd puts it, “What if we’re simply trading in one burden for another?”