Digital Prisons: Ankle Monitors Are Expensive, Ineffective, and Inhumane

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Electronic monitoring (EM) technology continues to gain popularity as pressure to reduce incarceration mounts. Law enforcement’s use of EM more than doubled between 2005 and 2015. It seems humane—allowing people to live at home and move about more freely than behind bars. But those who have lived with EM know that it’s simply incarceration by another name.

Recent research reveals that electronic monitoring limits the freedom and potential success of people on parole. EM negatively impacts their finances, their personal relationships and it increases their chances of being re-incarcerated. The monitors also make it difficult for people to hold down jobs, undergo medical procedures, or run common errands.

Planners believed EM would save money by freeing up jail space. But electronic monitors are expensive to make, implement, and maintain; many juvenile justice systems pass the cost on to young people and their families, and many devices get broken or lost. In most states the individual must pay money to wear the ankle monitors—$5-35 per day. If you can’t pay, you can be sent back to jail in some counties.

EM stigmatizes young people. Wearing an electronic monitoring device to school, for instance, is almost certain to provoke bias in teachers and peers who may now expect bad behavior from those children—seeing them as a physical danger to the community and those around them. This shackles young people to the mistakes of their past instead of helping them focus on a brighter future. There is also little evidence showing EM effectiveness. One study looked at reoffending rates after six months, young people with EM did not fare better than those without EM.

We should be helping parolees rebuild their lives, yet we create hurdles to their success by implementing a system focused on surveillance and sanctions.  This is the case with EM, which comes with a long list of conditions—sometimes more than 70 conditions— largely set by a parole officer, that the parolee must follow or risk further incarceration. The more parole conditions there are, the more likely an individual is to be sent back to prison; in other words, it’s really easy to do something wrong. Those in prison call it a “set-up.” Many of these re-entries can be blamed on technical violations––non-criminal actions, such as failing to report a change in address.

Instead of spending money on technological punishment, political decision-makers should use public resources to provide support to those who get caught in the justice system or the current repressive machinations of ICE. We need genuine alternatives, not digital prisons.

There has been very little corporate media coverage on the inefficacy of EM and the related risk of re-incarceration. There is only one report from NPR (2014) about how EM does not live up its expectations and can “punish the poor.”


Marie N. Williams, “Electronic Monitoring Is Neither Effective Nor Humane,” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, November 19, 2018,

Talia Wright, “Electronic Monitoring Isn’t Helping People on Parole, It’s Sending Them Back to Prison,” In These Times, October 10, 2018,

James Kilgore and Emmett Sanders, “Ankle Monitors Aren’t Humane. They’re Another Kind of Jail,” Wired, August 4, 2018,

Student Researcher: Alexsandra Griego and Amber Yang (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)