760 words; 3 minutes to read

One of the alternatives increasingly considered – and used – instead of jailing people is the use of electronic monitors.  These can be an alternative for bail; people charged with a crime can return home but their location and movement can be monitored with these electronic devices, usually worn around the ankle.  Or monitors can be incorporated into parole conditions or serve as a form of sentencing allowing house arrest or other kinds of restrictions on movement.  In theory, this approach should allow people to carry on with their lives and be much less expensive than incarceration.  Ankle monitors are widely used in the US, but less so in Canada, though their use here also seems to be increasing.

However, a recent article by Lauren Kilgour, a Canadian PhD candidate in Information Science at Cornell University, “The Ethics of Aesthetics” published in The Information Society, gives an important and quite different perspective on these devices.

Monitors are stigmatizing

Kilgour points out that aside from their ostensible purpose, ankle monitors carry other meanings and have other important consequences.  Most importantly, they mark and potentially stigmatize the wearer as someone involved with the criminal justice system.

Because ankle monitors are consistently associated with the criminal justice system, they create the conditions for people to be shunned, spoken to disrespectfully, or otherwise treated as “other” by people who see the monitor due to the normative stigma associated with being justice-involved. wearing an electronic ankle monitor is viscerally akin to being made to wear a criminal record on ones body.”

Moreover, these consequences do not have to happen in reality to make a difference.  There is evidence that people wearing monitors already curtail their activities because they fear that they will be judged by others – for example they go out less, or alter their clothing to try to make the monitors more conspicuous.

In sum, “The limitations monitors place on wearersability to pass make wearers vulnerable to judgement and discriminatory treatment, which complicates their ability to obtain and maintain employment, education, and housing”.

Stigma is a major part of criminal justice

Kilgour links the expressive or symbolic role of monitors to other historical examples of markings carrying stigma – such as branding people who were enslaved, or making specific communities of people wear particular kinds of clothing.  “… the visuality of the monitor enables it to operate as a stigma symbol that casts the wearer as a criminalin the eyes of the public and makes them vulnerable to prejudicial treatment.”

She also notes that monitors, which have now been around for 40 years, remain quite bulky physically, even though virtually all other electronic devices have shrunk in size dramatically over that time.  This is true of all the many kinds of monitors now available (her article has pictures of many of them.) The implication is that monitors have been left large and bulky precisely so that they DO communicate stigma to those who see them.  That is, the visibility and recognition of their “form factor” – the size and shape of computing hardware – expands the harms and potential everyday social punishments, such as ostracization, beyond their ostensible purpose of controlling movement.

Deliberate stigmatization of this kind is consistent with other aspects of criminal justice, such as mug shots, handcuffs, or public registries.  However, unlike other visible stigmatizing marks, monitors are not hidden behind layers of record-access rules or restricted to specific moments such as arrest or transportation. Their bald visibility in daily life creates the conditions for discriminatory treatment.

Monitors are not a simple and easy solution

All of this is in addition to the other problems of monitors that Kilgour mentions briefly, such as false alarms, poor operation in some buildings, failing batteries, costs imposed on the wearers, and other factors that can result in serious but unjustified consequences for those forced to use the monitors.

The stigmatization produced by monitors is even more distressing when we consider that they are largely, in Canada, worn by people who are on bail and so have not been found guilty of any crime.  They are a further violation of the presumption of innocence.  Keeping in mind that a large proportion of criminal charges do not result in a conviction, it is highly like that many people are thereby subject to stigmatization for no reason.

There may be a place for monitors, but as this article reveals, they have many more problems than their advocates suggest or than most lay people may realize at first glance.  These issues need further investigation before the devices are widely used.