Illustration by Lizzie Smith

While the novel coronavirus spreads through Cook County Jail more rapidly than nearly any other place in the country—with 317 incarcerated people and 245 correctional officers and other Cook County Sheriff’s staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, including three incarcerated people who have died, as of April 13—nearly 3,000 others in the county are incarcerated pretrial in their homes on electronic monitoring, vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

These Chicagoans, and those on electronic monitoring across the country, face some of the steepest challenges to their survival as the pandemic escalates in America. “When people are in jail and they’re unable to meet their own needs, the state is required to ensure that they’re fed; the state is required to ensure that they have access to… basic necessities. That is not true in the case of electronic monitoring,” explained Sharlyn Grace of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

When someone goes on electronic monitoring, or EM, they are fitted with an ankle monitor that they must wear twenty-four hours a day, which emits a constant radio signal that notifies the supervising agency if the detainee leaves the home. This includes stepping out onto the porch for a breath of fresh air or venturing out the front door to pick up mail. That’s why you might hear electronic monitoring referred to as “ankle monitoring” or “house arrest.” Receiving permission to leave the house, even in emergencies, is an arduous process that typically takes up to three days and often forces those on house arrest to choose between their safety and their freedom. 

There are two types of electronic monitoring ordered for people who are awaiting trial and presumed innocent in Cook County: Home Confinement through Pretrial Services, directed by the Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, and the Cook County Sheriff’s Electronic Monitoring Program. 

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) also has an electronic monitoring program for people who are exiting prison. Because of a campaign that resulted in the Illinois Prisoner Review Board changing the rules for the program last year, the IDOC is required to grant those on monitoring at least twelve hours of movement, or time outside the house, a day, which is more than those on pretrial monitoring can expect. However, the rule is poorly enforced; people in the program report  that in practice they are usually given much less than twelve hours.

The Sheriff’s Office states electronic monitoring “is used as a community-based alternative incarceration concept that allows… inmates to remain in the community instead of being incarcerated in jail.” However, in reality, those on EM aren’t allowed to remain in the community instead of being incarcerated. They’re still incarcerated, just in their own homes. 

For anything short of a medical emergency, in order for movement to not violate the conditions of electronic monitoring, information including the name and title of a contact person at the desired destination, the exact time of the visit or appointment, and the mode of transportation to be utilized must be called or emailed in to the Sheriff’s Electronic Monitoring Unit seventy-two hours in advance, depending on the type of movement requested.

Such strict limitations mean that, should the need arise, those on EM wouldn’t be able to leave the house to get a prescription filled or to seek urgent medical care for themselves or a family member without a lengthy wait. If they do, they risk getting sent to jail. 

D, a client of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, is well aware of the dangers of getting sick while on house arrest. Before the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 started spreading, he got sick enough to urgently need medication. But since he was on electronic monitoring, he risked being sent to jail if he went to the pharmacy. “There was no one around—my mom was working,” he said. He had to wait hours to get the medication he needed. 

These health and safety risks aren’t unique to this moment; they’re a constant for those on electronic monitoring. Now, though, they’re heightened, not only by the pandemic increasing the possibility that someone will need to go to the hospital, but also through its disruption to existing support structures. Many on electronic monitoring already struggled to maintain independence, having to rely on relatives to get groceries and other necessities. “What if the support person for someone on electronic monitoring who might otherwise have brought them groceries is elderly? Or is immunocompromised?” asked Grace. 

Cathryn Crawford, who works with emerging adults on electronic monitoring at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, notes that the Sheriff’s Office has communicated that emergency medical care will only be deemed as not violating the conditions of electronic monitoring during the pandemic if someone calls an ambulance to get to the hospital.  

“We had a client who was feeling symptoms of coughing, and he had a fever,” she said. “But not only was taking an ambulance prohibitively expensive, it’s also taking a very important ambulance off the street unnecessarily… It’s just an unreasonable position to take.”

As every day passes, it could become even harder for those on electronic monitoring to get necessary movement approved, as the number of probation officers, parole officers, and those staffing the electronic monitoring call centers gets cut to maintain social distancing protocols. And as many get exposed to the virus and have to quarantine or recover, staffing capacity could further dwindle. 

This puts everyone in a position of extreme precarity. “When you have a fever of 103 and you started showing symptoms of COVID-19, or someone in your family member has that situation… when you’re dealing with the kind of medical situations that we’re dealing with now, you just don’t have time to sit around and wait for somebody to pick up the phone, and then chase down a parole agent. It just sets you up to be sent to jail,” said James Kilgore, director of the Challenging E-Carceration project.

D worries that he may face such a decision, especially as representatives from the Sheriff’s Office have traveled from places like the jail to his house twice since the number of cases in the county jail started rising. 

Others on electronic monitoring have experienced similar visits from sheriff’s deputies and have been placed in deputies’ cars with no evident precautions taken to prevent the spread of the virus. They report that the deputies didn’t seem to be wearing protective clothing or taking any measures to ensure that the virus doesn’t live on surfaces in their squad cars.

“I mean, this is a breach of my security,” D said.

With schools, drug treatment programs, and more cancelled or moved online, Crawford has seen sheriff’s deputies checking up on her clients more often, not less. “They have been very aggressive about making sure that you’re not going somewhere else,” she said. “It’s sort of like this gotcha thing.… Oftentimes, they’ll wait until several [minor] violations have occurred and then take them into custody.”

And for those new to electronic monitoring who are currently being released from jail as a result of the emergency bond review ordered by Chief Judge Timothy Evans as COVID-19 escalates, maintaining social distancing is nearly impossible. When someone from a monitoring agency affixes a monitor to someone’s ankle and installs it in their home, the two necessarily come within six feet of each other. This puts both parties at increased risk of contracting the novel coronavirus and spreading it to others—particularly when one of them goes from one house to the jail to another house and another house to install the monitors. The Massachusetts Supreme Court was concerned enough about the risks to issue an order describing them and setting new limitations on ordering GPS monitoring as a condition of release, but no such rules have been implemented in Illinois. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office stated that they are regularly checking in with those on electronic monitoring and their families, and sending them information about how to combat the spread of COVID-19, but did not respond to further questions, including ones about whether they’re tracking how many people on EM have COVID-19 or about allegations of checking on monitored people without protective measures, by press time.

The health risks are combined with financial strain. Like many others, D’s financial situation has already been negatively impacted by the restrictive conditions of electronic monitoring. He has a small business, which he can’t run while on house arrest. He lives with his mom, but now her ability to work is also reduced—her job as an Uber driver is on hold indefinitely until the pandemic ends. “Picking up strangers is a definite no-no, so she has to stay home,” said D. 

Like many emerging adults the Lawndale Christian Legal Center works with, D may be the person best positioned in his family to get work during this crisis. But the requirements to leave home for a job interview while on EM don’t do much to help. If you’re on electronic monitoring, you need to submit a letter from a prospective employer stating that you have been invited for an interview and get it approved before being granted movement. Getting that letter is much more difficult without leaving the house. 

With neither D nor his mom able to work, tensions are heightened at D’s house. “Every day waking up, me and my mom get into it, we bicker about little stuff, and I can’t leave and go for a walk or go to a different family member’s house,” he said. 

Crawford says that this type of response to monitoring isn’t unusual. “The psychological effects of electronic monitoring, particularly in a period of chaos and uncertainty, are really debilitating. And now that… you have more and more family members staying home, if someone lives in a home with several people, or with a sibling with whom they have a contentious relationship, it’s really important to be able to go stand outside and be alone or walk around the block.”

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For D, the last few weeks could be the beginning of a long journey, as his court date has already been pushed back one month. That’s one more month on house arrest, with no end in sight as court dates across the county are delayed until at least May 18. With the trajectory of shutdowns uncertain and a growing backlog of postponed cases, it could end up being four or five months, or more, before D’s case actually comes back to court—keeping him on electronic monitoring for much longer than he would have been otherwise.

However, the courts are still open to those looking to plead guilty. That could increase pressure on those on electronic monitoring to agree to a plea bargain and waive their right to a trial just to get rid of the constrictions of the device, whether or not they’re actually guilty.

With the soaring number of people infected at the jail, many are calling for releasing as many people as possible to protect their health and public health. But some are concerned that Cook County may want to release people onto EM instead of just letting them go home. So far, Cook County has declared no plans to release large numbers of people from jail to electronic monitoring. But some counties in states like Virginia, California, and New York have implemented these policies already.

Crawford has seen judges placing many people on Sheriff’s Electronic Monitoring as a condition of their release when it’s not necessary, stating, “It’s not driven by the basic facts—it’s oftentimes driven by the predilections of a particular judge. And I think that, particularly in this time, it’s really important that the Chief Judge provide some tangible guidelines.” 

Though increased movement during the pandemic can be granted by individual judges, this would require those currently on electronic monitoring to go back to court and appeal to their judge, who may or may not currently be seeing cases due to the partial shutdown of the courts. Then the judge would have to instruct the sheriff to give movement. And “if someone does get that, it would be just one person. The sheriff has the power to give everyone movement without judicial orders,” explained Grace.

These asks are part of a wider campaign by the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, Chicago Community Bond Fund, and more than one hundred other organizations to get people out of jail, grant those on electronic monitoring more freedom of movement, stop the influx of new admissions to the jail on money bonds and to EM programs, and improve access to virtual visitation and sanitation for those who remain in the jail, as rising coronavirus rates can make any form of incarceration feel like a death sentence. Their efforts have included a call-in campaign to the Sheriff’s Office, the Office of the Chief Judge, and the State’s Attorney’s Office, as well as a petition for mass release filed by the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and an emergency class-action lawsuit for the immediate release of medically vulnerable people in the Cook County Jail against Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart.

Advocates hope that this moment of change in the criminal justice system can bring to light the obvious inconsistencies in the logic of electronic monitoring, namely that it treats people as both a threat and not a threat to public safety, and the fact that it hasn’t been proven to do, well, anything

“The fundamental piece about electronic monitoring in each and every situation is there is no research, there is no evidence that it has a positive impact on anything other than the bank balances and the companies that run the programs,” explained Kilgore. “No one has done research to show that this is an effective measure to do anything to change behavior, to ensure appearance in court, none of it… It’s only really in the criminal legal system that people get away with policies based on assumption.” 

A 2014 study published in the Justice Policy Journal showed that electronic monitoring had “no effect on reducing recidivism,” and multiple other reports have come to similar conclusions. But the electronic monitoring system has been demonstrated to present numerous other concerns: it has been shown to plunge those on it into debt, call and record children without their consent, and malfunction in ways that can send many back to jail even if they never violate the conditions of their monitoring.

So what does Kilgore recommend should be done? “Take them all off,” he said. “Things like being able to have medical treatment, being able to access education, being able to access employment, those conditions would make electronic monitoring more manageable. But it doesn’t justify the electronic monitoring.”

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Kiran Misra is a writer for the Weekly primarily covering criminal justice and policing in Chicago. She last covered the 2020 Cook County State’s Attorney’s race with interviews with Kim Foxx and Bill Conway and assessments of Foxx’s record and Conway’s campaign funding.

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