Electronic anklets, used in the United States to monitor some undocumented immigrants, have an emotional, mental and physical impact on those forced to wear them. According to a new report, the device causes sleeping difficulties, mental and work health problems and suicidal thoughts.
The news comes as the Biden Administration tries to push the use of digital control devices as an alternative to putting people in prisons awaiting the results of their immigration court proceedings.
Details are in the report Cyber Prisons for Immigration: Ending the Use of Electronic Shackles (Immigration Cyber Prisons: Ending the Use of Electronic Ankle Shackles), an investigation by the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law, the NGO Freedom for Immigrants and the Immigrant Defense Project.
The immigrants interviewed described the terrible circumstances of a life under surveillance: 12% considered committing suicide because of this control and 88% mentioned mental health problems, sleep problems, migraines and depression.
“Traumatic and abusive”
“I was very surprised by the findings of this report,” says Layla Razavi, deputy executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. She claims to have been familiar with electronic bracelets for two decades, which she has always considered harmful, but did not understand the extent of how “traumatic and abusive” the practice was until she saw the statistics.
Electronic anklets, which monitor geolocation, have long been used in the US criminal justice system, and for the past 20 years, by immigration authorities. But while some politicians seek to end immigration detention and the Biden Administration terminates contracts with local private prisons that keep immigrants behind bars, efforts are aimed at strengthening the Immigration and Customs Enforcement alternative. (ICE) to detention: the Intensive Supervision Program (ISAP).
The program uses electronic bracelets and mobile phone apps to monitor people who would otherwise have been incarcerated.
Of the 96,574 individuals registered with ISAP in May 2021, 31,069 wore electronic bracelets. Immigrants monitored by ISAP are required to stay within 70 miles (112.7 km) of their home and are generally not allowed to cross state lines.
BI Incorportated, a subsidiary of the private prison company GEO Group, has had a contract with ICE since 2004, guaranteeing the provision of electronic anklets. His contract was renewed three times, reaching $ 2.2 billion last year. The company declined to answer questions about the armbands and the immigrants’ complaints, redirecting all inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security.
Faced with mounting pressure on arrests, GEO Group implements several strategies to boost its monitoring affiliate. Among them, the support of Trump’s First Step Act, which required people under house arrest to spend 24 hours a day monitored with an electronic device.
The authors of the report on digital surveillance call the devices “shackles”, which evokes a ball and chain [símbolo de la esclavitud] rather than a neat Fitbit watch. Increasingly, authorities are seeing electronic devices as a preferable option to arrest.
The document describes how monitoring causes physical and psychological harm, movement restrictions, difficulties in interpersonal interaction, and difficulties in finding and keeping a job.
Cramps and excessive heat
About 90% of the participants suffered damage to their physical health, including cramps, numbness due to impaired blood circulation, discomfort caused by excessive heat from the battery, and bloating. One in five individuals claimed to have suffered electric shocks from the device, including a person who had to go to the emergency room.
Almost all of the participants felt socially isolated because of the bracelet. One of the respondents described the device as “a modern scarlet letter,” that is, a way of marking immigrants.
More than two-thirds of the participants indicated that their families had faced financial difficulties because they had lost their jobs or had more difficulty finding a job due to the electronic anklet.
Laura A worked as a wood manufacturer during the eleven months of 2018 in which she wore the bracelet. Her co-workers heard the device beep when she changed or charged the battery.
“Other immigrants saw it and said that the authorities would appear because of me and that I should not work there. They were worried about being deported if the device rang and ICE arrived at the scene,” he tells The Guardian in an interview conducted in Spanish.
The psychological effects persisted even after the surveillance devices were removed, the report states. 38% of the research participants believe that the impact of the bracelet on their mental health will be permanent.
Máxima Guerrero, a Phoenix-based activist, was arrested in June 2020 during one of the protests over the death of George Floyd, in which she claims that police officers cornered more than 100 people into a dead-end space, where they were arrested. .
Guerrero is one of the beneficiaries of the immigration policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program aimed at undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States as children, thank you which was kept safe from deportation. Being in the DACA program did not prevent the local police department, which has a contract with ICE, from contacting the Agency to arrest her.
Mental health problems
She was released with an electronic bracelet that she had to wear for a month. ICE called her twice due to the device’s malfunction, erroneously reporting that she was outside the permitted area, when in fact she was at home or around the corner shopping for food. When he told his ISAP agent what was happening, they told him that “there was a glitch in the system and everything was fine.”
“But I was not well,” Guerrero says to The Guardian. Currently, he is going to therapy.
Many immigrants report having difficulty sleeping due to lights, alarm sounds, and vibrations from the device’s battery. They also speak of the fear that it is not properly charged, which could lead to an ICE call or visit.
Laura would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of the alarm, one of the many errors in the battery. ICE called within minutes asking where he was. “It scared me so much, at one, two in the morning,” he says. Laura was given two batteries that were supposed to last eight hours each after a full charge, but usually only lasted two.
A Jamaican immigrant, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from ICE, had to wear his monitoring device for 13 months during the Trump administration, after being released from an ICE detention center.
Go through a metal detector
The bracelet had malfunctions on four occasions, which caused him great annoyance. He got a job at a transportation company, where day after day he had to explain to security guards why his ankle was ringing every time he passed through a metal detector.
“I was never able to go through the metal detector without having to tell the security guard, ‘Look, man, I have an electronic bracelet on my foot.’ And every night I had to explain it to a different security guard.” He says he was constantly worried about the battery being charged and being late for work.
ICE goes to great lengths to increase the rate of ISAP participants who appear in court to justify the use of electronic bracelets within its program.
The authors of the report affirm that these data are erroneous and that surveillance programs do not result in greater participation in judicial processes, compared to that obtained through legal and support programs, which would be a better alternative. They cite multiple instances in which various NGOs had worked alongside immigrants at high risk of flight, to whom they offered legal representation. Almost 100% appeared in court.
“When they receive that kind of support, they come forward, because people want to follow the legal path and regularize their situation. It is the goal for almost all of these people,” says Razavi.
The authors demand that the Biden administration immediately reduce its use of ISAP and remove the devices from individuals, but without imprisoning them. The White House referred questions about ISAP to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to our inquiries.
“The jury remains unsure how the Biden administration will address this failed program,” says Peter Markowitz, co-director of the Kathryn O Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law. “I hope they look closely at this research and realize the profound damage the program causes.”
Translation of Julián Cnochaert