Posts Tagged ‘the digital poorhouse’

“Every day at about 5pm, 60-year-old Willard Birts has to find a power outlet. Then he has to wait two hours next to it while the battery on his ankle monitor recharges. If he lets the battery drain, or enters San Mateo county, he risks being sent back to jail while he awaits trial.

Birts pays $30 per day – that’s $840 per month – for the privilege of wearing the bulky device. It sucks up all his income, leaving him homeless and sleeping in his Ford Escape in Oakland.

“It’s like a rope around my neck,” he told the Guardian, a cable snaking across the floor from his ankle to the wall. “I can’t get my feet back on the ground.”

The use of GPS ankle monitors in the American criminal justice system is on the rise – up 140% between 2005 and 2015, says the latest data available. The government uses these devices to track the location of individuals to make sure they are complying with the terms of their release, whether that’s being at home every night after a certain time or avoiding specific places. They appear to offer a tantalising alternative to jail and the chance to be with family on the outside.

It pretends to be an alternative but it’s actually a form of incarceration

But wearers described them as digital shackles that deprive them of their liberties in cruel and unexpected ways.

“It pretends to be an alternative to incarceration but it’s actually a form of incarceration,” said James Kilgore, who runs the Challenging E-Carceration project at the Center for Media Justice.

The rules for electronic monitors differ depending on the county and the offence. They are used both pre-trial and during parole and probation. In some cases the county covers the total cost of the technology – after all, it’s saving money on extra beds in prison – while in others fees for the wearer range anywhere from $10 to $35 per day.

Beyond the financial costs, ankle monitors introduce new ways for the wearer – disproportionately, people from impoverished and socially marginalised communities – to end up back in prison.

“The minute you have a device on you you can go back to prison because your bus is late, or the battery dies or there is a power outage,” Kilgore said.

Private companies will sometimes offer their surveillance technology at no cost to cash-strapped counties, instead pushing the cost on to the wearers.

William Edwards, a 38-year-old former office clerk, was made to pay $25 a day to wear a GPS-tracking ankle monitor between January and April 2017.

He had been driving an acquaintance’s car with the owner in the vehicle when police pulled them over in November 2016. Police found drugs in the owner’s bag and a gun in the glove compartment and arrested both men.

Edwards, who suffers from chronic myeloid leukemia, spent December 2016 in Alameda county jail in California, where his health began to deteriorate. He was released on the condition that he wore a GPS monitor.

“You just think about the opportunity of being home with the people who care about you,” he said. “But it was horrible. A living nightmare.”

Although Edwards had no convictions – and the charges were later dropped – he spent months as a prisoner in his own home, constantly harassed for money by LCA, the company that provided the tracking service. LCA demanded to know what his girlfriend earned so they could base their “means-tested” fees on his household income.

“I felt like I was dealing with a mafia loan shark,” he said.

Edwards is using the legal system to fight back. He is part of a class-action lawsuit against LCA and Alameda county, filed in early August, which accuses the county of allowing a private company to make profit-driven decisions about people’s freedoms, denying them due process. It accuses LCA of extorting fees from people through the threat of incarceration, in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The restriction of liberty is a government function, but when that service is provided by a private company there’s no public oversight of decision-making. In the case of LCA there’s no transparency over how it decides the fees to charge nor the techniques it users to ensure people cough up.

“You would never let a public probation officer threaten someone with jail if they can’t pay a fee,” said Phil Telfeyan, the founding director of Equal Justice Under Law, which is bringing the suit. “We’re not going to let a private company do that either.”

LCA declined to comment.

‘These are not silver bullets’
Despite the surge in use of ankle monitors, there’s not much rigorous research to suggest they are effective at preventing people from absconding or re-offending or at keeping the public safe. Some studies have, though, shown they can be useful for ensuring that sex and drug offenders comply with the terms of their parole, such as home confinement orders.

In many cases they add an administrative burden on probation and parole officers who have to deal with thousands of daily alerts, errors and false positives. This “crying wolf” aspect has caused officers to miss or ignore important alerts, meaning the public is lulled into a false sense of security.

In Colorado, a parolee called Evan Ebel cut off his ankle monitor before murdering a Denver pizza delivery man. He then tracked down Colorado’s prisons chief and shot him dead at his home. Parole officers didn’t realise he had gone awol for several days.

In California, the sex offender Phillip Garrido wore a GPS monitor and was visited at his home by parole agents at least twice a month. It took 18 years for agents to discover that he had been keeping Jaycee Dugard captive in his garden, having kidnapped her as a child. During that time Garrido repeatedly raped Dugard, fathering two children.


Olivia Solon, in Oakland, “‘Digital shackles’: the unexpected cruelty of ankle monitors.” The Guardian, August 28, 2018. 

Read Full Post »

How did you get started working on poverty and surveillance?

I came up working in the Bay Area’s community technology center movements of the 1990s [which sought to expand access to computers and the early internet]. I was really excited about the possibilities of that work. But I also struggled to reconcile the utopianism of that moment with the reality of San Francisco in the 1990s. Public housing was being knocked down, the city was visibly whitening, and people were being displaced.

So I left San Francisco to escape a sort of personal, political crisis. I moved to a small town in upstate New York called Troy. And, coincidentally, I moved there just as the city decided to put all of their eggs in the basket of high-tech development.

You couldn’t escape it.

Right. And that was the question that I started asking myself. There’s something here I can’t escape. How am I going to make sense of it?

I started doing community technology work in Troy, working primarily with poor and working-class adults out of a YWCA. A lot of people were coming out of the prison system or out of recovery. And they challenged me deeply in the ways I was thinking about technology.

There was this idea at the time that the major inequality issue in tech was the “digital divide” — you know, low-income people aren’t interacting with technology so they’re being left behind. But the people I was working with told me, “No. Listen. Technology is totally ubiquitous in our lives. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They were seeing tons of technological innovation, just not where I was looking for it. They were seeing it in the criminal justice system, in the welfare office, and in low-wage employment.

I had this conversation with a woman who I called “Dorothy Allen” in my first book. We were talking about her EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] card. She told me, “Yeah. It’s more convenient. It’s great to not have to carry around paper [food] stamps anymore. But also, my caseworker uses it to track all of my purchases.” And I had this look on my face, a look of total shock. And Dorothy said, “Oh. You didn’t know that, did you?” I did not. She said, “You all” — meaning middle-class people like me — “You all should be paying attention to what happens to us, because they’re coming for you next.”

That conversation, and others like it, is where my interest in technology in the welfare system came from.

Part of what I enjoyed about your book is how it lays out a continuous history from the poorhouses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — where the indigent were incarcerated and forced to work — to the high-tech containment of today. Can you trace that a bit?

I think we tend to talk about these kinds of technological tools as if they arose outside of history. Like they just fell from the sky. One of the major arguments in the book is that these tools were more evolution than revolution. They’re very much in line with the kind of punitive policy, processes, and tools that came before them.

There’s two moments I’ll draw your attention to. First is the scientific charity movement of the 1870s, which was deeply informed by eugenics and the desire to “breed” out the moral inadequacies that produce indigence. It kicks off after the fall of Reconstruction and the violent reassertion of white supremacy that took hold then. You see the rise of Jim Crow, the exclusion of African Americans in public life, immigration restrictions that are based on scientific racism, and the involuntary sterilization of poor whites.

This all comes out of a moment where social service technologies are changing really fast; indiscriminate giving is being replaced by what was called “scientific giving.” The first “big data” set in the United States was the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor. It was the public arm of the eugenics movement. They sent scientists out into the world to collect these very detailed family trees that tried to track how poverty, “imbecility,” “depraved living” — all these words that they used at the time — were genetically carried.

The second moment is the rise of the “digital poorhouse,” which began in the late sixties, early seventies, really, in response to the successes of social movements in opening up public programs.

The welfare rights movement.

That’s right. In the mid to late sixties, into the early seventies, the national welfare rights movement was having extraordinary successes. Particularly legal successes. Supreme Court victories in 1968, ’69, and ’70 made it impossible to discriminate against folks receiving AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children]; they enshrined due process rights for welfare recipients; and they prohibited “man-in-house” rules that allowed caseworkers to raid the homes of poor women to look for evidence of male cohabitants. These victories came toward the end of the sixties, and by 1971 you see these new technological tools implemented. It’s a backlash.

And it’s entwined with the backlash against civil rights in general. Suddenly all these black women are receiving benefits, too. And welfare becomes firmly linked with being black.

There’s this deep, deep, deep connection in the American mind between poverty and being a person of color, specifically being African American. You don’t get a welfare system like the one we have without using race. In each of these systems, race has been deployed as a narrative, as an organizing method.

Meanwhile, technology became a way of smuggling politics into the system without having an actual political conversation. In the 1970s, with the promise of increasing efficiency, you start seeing computerization to detect fraud and tighten eligibility rules. We think the real anti-welfare backlash started with Reagan. But the drop-off really began in the early seventies. That’s when they started culling the rolls — using these technical means. Around 1973, almost 50 percent of people living under the poverty line were receiving some kind of cash assistance. A decade later, it dropped to 30 percent. Now it’s less than ten.

At the same time the government is scrutinizing caseworkers more closely, cutting down on their discretion. As surveillance of recipients increased, so did surveillance of frontline workers. They introduced much more punitive processes, with much less human connection. And that also has continued in the systems we see today.

That’s something that immediately struck me reading the book, how many intimate stories you tell about individuals on both sides of welfare provision. You’re rendering them as these really human characters, who are not just numbers.

That was a really important part of telling the story. My intention in the work that I do is always to start with the folks who are getting the pointiest end of the stick. It’s harder, in many ways, than talking to the administrators or the policymakers. It requires me spending a lot of time with people, developing trust and developing understanding of their situations. But if we’re missing their voices, we’re missing a huge part of what this new regime of data analytics is about.

Another reason for including those stories is that I really see recipients of public services and frontline caseworkers as possible allies. And in fact, there have been a lot of historical moments where that collaboration has been really threatening to the status quo.

For example, one of the things that happens in the 1960s is the New York City welfare caseworkers strike: eight thousand caseworkers strike on behalf of recipients and their own working conditions. They say, “We’re not going back to work until you treat them better.” That’s a terrifying moment for the system.

Do you see prospects for that kind of solidarity today?

I did welfare rights organizing for fifteen-plus years. One of the great challenges of the work is realizing that caseworkers are, indeed, the deliverers of the attitude of the system. And recipients often see them that way.

But many are also just one sickness, one period of bad luck away from being on public assistance themselves. And so there are a lot of horizontal lines there. It’s a difficult relationship, but they’re also natural allies in some important ways.

– Sam Adler-Bell interviews Virginia Eubanks about

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, “The High-Tech Poorhouse.” Jacobin. January 29, 2018.

Read Full Post »