© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Even Illinois’s Department Of Corrections Wants To Fix The Way The State Does Electronic Monitor

Micol Siegel
Several people wearing electronic monitors

Nicole Davis said her uncle was diagnosed with late-stage cancer after his release from prison in 2014. He was confined to his home because of an electronic monitoring device strapped to his ankle. He missed many necessary doctor appointments before he died, Davis said. She said that’s because he couldn’t get permission from his parole officer for the medical visits.

“Those parole officers would not return my call, they had no sympathy for my uncle,” she told the house judiciary committee last week.

“Those parole officers would not return my call, they had no sympathy for my uncle,” she told the house judiciary committee last week.

People on electronic monitoring (EM) as a condition of parole can only leave home with explicit permission from a state parole agent.

Davis said even after her uncle passed away, just two months after returning home from prison, it took weeks for someone to come and remove the monitoring device from his body. She said the family couldn’t cremate him until the device was removed.

“He stayed in the morgue for two weeks. Two weeks. If I had known that they was going to treat him that way, I would have cut it,” she said.

Davis, a member of the midwest chapter of the National Council of Incarcerated and formerly Incarcerated Women, and founder of the Talk To Me Foundation, spoke to the committee as part of a hearing on the state’s use of EM for individuals on mandatory supervised release — commonly referred to as parole. Like Davis, many said they personally experienced electronic monitoring or were close to someone who had. Those on EM wear the ankle monitors constantly, and are only allowed to leave home during certain hours on certain days of the week, and need permission to venture outside at all other times.

Those who testified at Friday’s hearing said people were prevented from going to work or attending medical appointments while others were sent back to prison for coming home late.

Illinois Department of Corrections officials said during the hearing that about 2,400 individuals are currently on EM as a condition of mandatory supervised release.

Those convicted of certain offenses — primarily sex offenses — are required by state law to be placed on EM. For everyone else, it’s up to the state’s Prisoner Review Board to determine whether or not someone should be placed on electronic supervision, and for how long.

The department uses two types of monitoring devices: radio frequency, which tracks whether or not someone is at their residence, and GPS, which tracks location data.

IDOC oversees all individuals on mandatory supervised release, including those with ankle monitors. Parole agents decide what days and hours someone on EM is allowed to leave their home.

State Rep. Carol Ammons, an Urbana Democrat, called for the hearing on electronic monitoring. She hadfiled legislation to reform the state’s EM program, but it never made it out of committee.

Ammons said she hopes to file new legislation to address a myriad of concerns around the EM program — notably that it’s a barrier to successfully reintegrating into society after prison.

‘A satellite of the prison’

Lawmakers heard from several other formerly incarcerated people subjected to the practice, including Monica Cosby, chair of the Formerly Incarcerated Women’s Working Group of the Illinois Women’s Justice Initiative. She was released from state prison in December 2015, and was subsequently placed on EM for three months.

Cosby told lawmakers that, if given a choice now, she would rather have stayed an additional three months in prison than be subjected to the state’s electronic monitoring program. She said she was prevented from doing an internship at a law office because a parole officer decided she could only leave her house for a few hours per day three days a week.

Cosby said the program also opens the door for abuse of power by parole agents and others.

“I know several women who have been in bad relationships and have been threatened with having their boxes thrown out the window or removed and getting taken back to prison because they would not consent to have sex with a partner or landlord,” she said.

While the common conception is that EM is better than prison, Cosby said the device “makes everywhere you are a satellite of the prison, and it puts everybody in proximity to you kind of in a prison, too.”

Greg Gaither, founder of Illinois African-American Juvenile Justice Institute (IAAJI) and Woodlawn Juvenile Reentry Project in Chicago, also spoke at the hearing. In one instance, he said he tried to notify the state’s electronic monitoring call center that one of the formerly incarcerated men he was assisting as part of his reentry work was going to be late coming home because it was taking longer than expected for him to complete a test required for enrollment in an alternative school.

“It’s difficult to make contact, to notify those officials as to what’s happening down on the ground. So we were an hour and a half late getting the participant back home, and his electronic monitoring orders were revoked, and he was arrested,” Gaither said.

Millions Spent On Electronic Monitors

Between 2014 and 2018, the department of corrections paid BI Incorporated —  a subsidiary of the Florida-based private prison company The GEO Group — roughly $14.2 million to supply and maintain the state’s electronic monitoring devices, according to IDOC.

The state has a five-year contract with the company worth $32.5 million that is set to expire this year. This document was obtained by University of Illinois researcher and criminal justice reform advocate, James Kilgore.

IDOC also contracts with Protocol Criminal Justice Inc. — a subsidiary of BI Incorporated — to operate a 24-hour call center tasked with managing data on Illinois parolees, including those on EM.

Gaither, Cosby and other reform advocates said the money currently spent on EM would be better spent on support services for those reentering society after prison.

Kilgore found that the state paid Protocol more than $49 million since 2010.

He also testified at Friday’s hearing and strongly recommended lawmakers craft and pass legislation that would guarantee individuals on EM certain freedom of movement.

“They shouldn’t have to be battling to get permission to do something like go to a job interview or get medical attention,” Kilgore told the committee.

Several people who spoke during Friday’s hearing described spending hours on the phone with call center employees trying to request permission to go to medical appointments and other activities they said were critical to reentering society after prison.

Alan Mills, an attorney with the Uptown People’s Law Center, told lawmakers that one of his employees, who was on parole at the time, missed half of his first day at work because he was waiting on hold for hours with the call center to request permission to go to work. In another instance, he said, an employee received permission from the call center to go to work, but then had to return home suddenly because his parole officer expected him to be at his residence.

“And that’s a large part of the problem,” Mills told lawmakers. “There’s very little coordination between the people at (the call center) who are on the front lines of deciding whether or not somebody has been AWOL or whether they’re allowed movement and the actual parole agent.”

The research on EM backs up the accounts of panelists at the hearing, Megan Alderden, with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, told lawmakers.

She said the research shows that there’s “no definitive indication” that electronic monitoring reduces the likelihood that those subjected to the practice will return to prison.

Alderden told lawmakers that some studies suggest the practice does reduce recidivism for certain high risk populations, but she said most EM studies are poorly defined and researchers can’t make definitive conclusions.

Because of that, she urged lawmakers to commission a third-party group to research the state’s use of electronic monitoring “to ensure that whatever practices are being used that we’re making sure that they’re producing the results that we expect.”

IDOC and PRB Response

Officials from the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Prisoner Review Board didn’t dismiss or contradict criticisms of the EM program.

Jason Garnett, chief of the parole division of IDOC, told lawmakers they’ve requested in recent years that the review board not place anyone on EM that isn’t required to be on a device under state law.

“Some of these offenders that are coming out are returning citizens that by statute have to be on electronic monitoring,” he said.

This claim was later refuted during the hearing by Alan Mills, who said the majority of individuals on EM were placed in the program at the discretion of the PRB — not state law.

In an interview this week, a spokesman for the PRB, Jason Sweat, said the board is reviewing the data to determine how many people are on EM by board discretion, and how many are on it because of state law. Sweat said the board is currently modernizing its data collection.

He added that the agency is committed to evaluating its own decisions with regard to EM, and working with IDOC to make sure the enforcement of the program is in line with its intent — that is not to confine people to their homes but to provide structure and as a sanction for parole violations before sending someone back to prison.

Craig Findley, chair of the Prisoner Review Board, said during the hearing last week that successful reentry is made more likely if someone leaves prison with an education, a job skill, abstinence from drugs and alcohol and a job opportunity.

“Electronic monitoring doesn’t make it better, doesn’t make it worse, but it is in some respects a necessary function,” he said.

Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of IDOC, told lawmakers that the department and the PRB were working on a “risk assessment” model that would take each person into account beyond the crime they’ve committed. That could affect how many people are electronically monitored after prison, but officials said it’s still a work in progress, and it hasn’t been rolled out in all state correctional facilities.

With regard to the criticisms of the EM program, Taylor said: “The department is responsive to the stories and experiences that those that have been on mandatory supervised release have experienced. We are trying to address them. These changes don’t occur overnight. That’s all we’re saying… We know we need to make change.”

When asked by State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat, how many of the roughly 2,400 individuals currently on EM are deemed to be high risk, Taylor said she did not have that information but would provide it.

Ramirez also asked how many people have been sent back to prison as a result of an EM violation. Again, Taylor said she did not have that information, but would provide it.

Lawmakers also asked about how GPS data collected by the call center is stored.

Taylor said the call center manages and stores that data “perpetually.”

“So they have records on all of IDOC’s population that may have been subjected to GPS and electronic monitoring. However, the department of corrections has those records as well,” she said.

Illinois Newsroom filed a Freedom of Information Act request late last month asking IDOC for the names, ages, gender and race of those placed on EM over the past three years, as well as their convictions and the length of time they were placed on the monitors.

In their response, the department wrote that “IDOC’s database will not produce a report showing the information you seek without bringing in Microsoft to perform specialized programming. IDOC does not currently track this data, other than the number of hookups monthly.”

An IDOC spokesperson told Illinois Newsroom that the department’s planning and research unit was trying to fulfill the FOIA request.

‘We agree there is a problem’

In an interview late last month, State Rep. Carol Ammons said the recent hearing would inform legislation she plans to file to change the EM program in Illinois.

Following the hearing, Alan Mills, with the Uptown People’s Law Center, said he was surprised by the testimony offered by IDOC staff. He said he expected the department to vigorously defend the practice. Instead, he said, it was clear everyone agreed the system needed to be fixed.

“I don’t think we agree on the solution,” Mills said. “But I think we agree there is a problem, and to me, that is refreshing.”

Lee V. Gaines is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, Crain’s, the Pacific Standard and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with Chicago non-profit journalism lab, City Bureau.