In November 2020 the Flemish minister of Justice expressed her concerns about the increasing use of electronic monitoring (EM) in Flanders: numbers had risen sharply (+25%) due to the covid-crisis. This situation was no longer acceptable, so she argued: EM is too labour-intensive and it costs too much to the Flemish tax payer.  Moreover, EM is not supposed to empty the prisons and it has negative consequences for the credibility of the justice system, so she added. EM should therefore only be used exceptionally.  

A few days later I responded to some of these concerns in an op-ed for a Flemish newspaper. I found her comments surprising and puzzling: over the past two decades EM had become more widely used and diversified in Belgium. Certainly, there were (and still are) concerns about EM but no one could deny that it had become a key part of the criminal justice system in Belgium. Moreover, with the adoption of the Council of Europe’s Recommendation on EM such forms of monitoring offenders in the community had become embedded in a broader penological and human rights framework.  Such pan-European developments could show the way for a sustainable incorporation of EM in European criminal justice systems – and, yes, maybe they could even help European societies move away from the prison. So why this sudden U-turn? Why advocating EM as a privilege for the happy few?  Why did she not embrace this as a ‘success’ story?

However, when I was preparing a presentation for a talk on EM earlier this month I realized that my reasoning in my op-ed of December 2020 seemed to be the opposite to what I wrote fourteen years earlier.  In an op-ed published in December 2006 (in the same newspaper)  I reflected on the then rapid increase of EM: this happened because of the automatic release of short term prisoners. This was done to alleviate the pressure on Belgium’s overcrowded prisons.  However, this ‘rationalisation’ of EM took place with insufficient attention for selection or follow-up. The title that was placed on top of my op-ed translates as follows: ‘Here you have an ankle bracelet, happy new year!’ (‘Hier is een enkelband, prettige eindejaarsfeesten!’).  It captured beautifully some of my worries: EM risked becoming a mere control gadget, devoid of any meaningful human contact inspired by a probation ethos.

Is there a contradiction here between the op-eds of 2006 and 2020?  Or is this an example of growing older, growing wiser, growing …? No, I don’t think so. The contrast between the two op-eds illustrates the many different ways in which EM comes to be used – and abused – in current times in Europe and beyond; and it reminds us that EM cannot be understood if we don’t keep in mind what it’s being used for, by whom and to whom, and for what purposes. 

In 1977 the Dutch criminologist Willem Nagel (1910–1983) already asked such questions about the modern prison. In his book De funkties van de vrijheidstraf (which was, unfortunately, never translated into English) Nagel explored 57 different functions of the modern prison. Nagel discussed these functions alphabetically, from ‘Afkeer uitdrukken’ (expressing aversion) to ‘Vorming’ (education). To some of these functions (such as deterrence) he devoted dozens of pages; to other functions only a few pages or just a few lines. This alphabetical listing and this unbalanced treatment of the functions of imprisonment makes reading Nagel’s book a strange and puzzling experience. But perhaps it made his message about the prison even stronger: maybe this reflects how the debate on imprisonment is generally conducted?

In Electronic Monitoring I adopted a similar Nagel-inspired approach. I identified and discussed 22 different functions of EM, ranging from ‘Action function’ to ‘Widening the net’. In my view, such an exercise can help us better understand why the birth and spread of EM provokes such a mixed bag of feelings: from the utopian dream of a world without prisons (eg in the 1960s writings of the brothers Schwitzgebel/Gable or the early 21st century attack on the prison by Thierry Lévy) to the dystopian nightmare of an orwellian world where big tech takes over and e-carceration simply widens and deepens the carceral archipelago (eg in the abolitionist #NoDigitalPrisons project, led by James Kilgore).  Indeed, seldomly one sees such strong hopes and fears simultaneously projected onto the same penal innovation: EM has been related to both decarceration and net widening, humanisation and degradation, reintegration and incapacitation, and so on.

In order to better understand EM we will need to defamiliarize it. In my chapter for the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy and Science of Punishment I introduced and used this expression from Zygmunt Bauman’s textbook on sociology to introduce a few of my reflections on punishment in general but we can also apply this to EM in particular: a Nagel-inspired study of EM can serve as a prolegomenon that helps to defamiliarize EM, that is, it helps asking questions that ‘…make evident things into puzzles’. Is EM a success or a failure? Is EM Apollonian (risk, rationality, power, managerialism) or Dionysian (feelings, emotions, passion, rage, anger)? Do we have too much or too little EM? The answer to such questions depends on how we answer a large number of other questions which a Nagel-like approach of EM can help us formulate and address; it also implies that we first need to know what EM is all about, in the here and now, before we can make any final projections or judgments about what direction it can – or should – head into.

One thought on “ Too much EM? ”

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