Over the past six months (February – July 2022) I enjoyed a sabbatical research leave.  Part of my leave was devoted to the study of body search practices in prisons (a workshop was organized in April 2022 and an edited volume will follow soon with Palgrave) and preparing a book with shorter pieces reflecting on crime and punishment in Belgium (in Dutch, to be published in September 2022, with Borgerhoff & Lamberigts). However, most of my leave was devoted to the study of electronic monitoring (EM), so in this brief blog post I offer a few reflections, based on my visits to Argentina (7 – 31 March 2022) and the US (24 April – 6 May 2022), and my participation in the EM conference  of the European Confederation of Probation (CEP) in Helsinki, 23 – 25 May 2022.

The origins of EM go back to the 1960s.  During my visit to California I had the opportunity to meet with dr. Robert Gable, one of the inventors of this technology. One of the devices he experimented with was a belt which allowed for two-way communication (more information and pictures are available on his website). On the picture below you can see me wearing one of dr. Gable’s belts.

In early writings on EM we can observe a remarkable optimism, the hope that technological progress would make a future without prisons possible: “Society has moved away from the physical confinement of a person to control his behavior. The stockade of the ball and chain were replaced by the institutional courtyard; the courtyard is now being replaced by the farm and half-way house. When specific offending behaviors can be accurately predicted and/or controlled within the offender’s own environment, incarceration will no longer be necessary as a means of controlling behavior and protecting society” (Schwitzgebel et al. 1964: 237, for a discussion, see chapter 1 of my little book on EM). 

However, those optimistic predictions of decarceration did not come true: the prison did not go away. During my visit to California I had the chance to talk to colleagues at UC Berkeley and practitioners in the field, in Berkeley and Oakland, and learn from their experiences and writings: EM seemed to be overly focused on control, with little flexibility, cumbersome conditions and people often paying high fees. Moreover, newer developments (like the use of tracking technology in migration) seemed to be particularly intrusive and disturbing. These developments gave rise to much critical reflection on EM in the US,  an aversion toward monitoring technology leading some, like James Kilgore in his recent book Understanding e-carceration, to plead for abolishing EM.

However, in May 2022, at the CEP conference in Helsinki, you could hear very different stories about EM.  One of the plenary speakers talked about EM in Finland. Interestingly, she opened her talk with pointing to the fact that Finland had consistently been named the happiest country in the world.  In doing so,  she connected the little story of EM to the larger history of Finnish society, placing EM in its wider societal context.  And, indeed, a red thread throughout the plenary panel – she was joined by her colleagues from Sweden and Norway – was to highlight how technology has come to be embedded in future-oriented probation work in the Nordic countries.

The Nordic story reminded me of the book Ware Strafe which was published 25 years ago. In this book Michael Lindenberg offered some reflections on one of the first comparative studies on EM: Tulare County, in California vs. Malmö, in Sweden.  In both places the same ankle bracelet, produced and marketed by the same company (BI), was being used but this happened in very different ways.

In Tulare County the focus was on control and the technology was dominant. Lindenberg wrote about ‘das Kontrollamt’.  In Malmö EM and the information it provided, were seen as an aid to intensive supervision. The technology should never become dominant, so it was argued: a social work ethic was central – here Lindenberg wrote about ‘das helfende Amt’.  And this also became visible in other ways, e.g. probation officers wearing guns and searching houses (in Tulare) vs. a system of privacy-friendly offices and respectful home visits (in Malmö).

Comparative research on EM is still in its infancy. Yes, important work has been done, like the Leeds study on EM in five jurisdictions, or the book of Lindenberg we just mentioned, but such studies are rare.  Moreover, large parts of the world remain un- or underexplored.  What, for example, with South American developments?  A lot is happening there but there is hardly any mapping or discussion. During my stay in Argentina I had the opportunity to visit the federal EM center in Buenos Aires.  Here a leading civil servant told enthusiastically about the use of EM in domestic violence cases: about 1,500 devices were active in March 2022.  It is very difficult – because of the complex state organization and the wide range of actors involved in different uses of EM – to get a clear picture of the main trends and tendencies.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to observe how, again, a different story of EM seems to emerge: not a top down initiative from a carceral state mimicking the prison in the community, but rather a bottom up development, EM entangled in struggles against gender violence and femicide. According to some, EM here becomes an empowering tool, women as ‘dona das chaves’ (see Brasilian study, cited in Zackseski 2021: p. 1353, see also Craig Paterson’s work on Argentina).

These developments should not surprise us: EM is a versatile tool, a piece of technology, that is being used in very different ways, as we argued in an earlier blog post (“Too much EM?”).  A challenge for future research will be to further explore, and study systematically, the different uses of EM across the globe. Not just out of intellectual curiosity: indeed, in these different developments we can also see glimpses of the futures of EM, which can feed into a wider debate on the uses and abuses of such technologies in criminal justice and beyond.

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