Coronavirus adds new fears for those on electronic monitoring

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Darryl has many of the risk factors that make COVID-19 more deadly: He has had open heart surgery and fought cancer in the past three years, and he is quickly approaching 60 years old.

On top of that, he fears that seeking healthcare could get him arrested. Darryl has been on pretrial electronic monitoring since late 2018. (Injustice Watch is not using his last name because he fears speaking publicly could prejudice his case.) In the past, he has struggled to get approval from the sheriff’s office for doctor’s visits, and breaking his house arrest could land him back in jail, where COVID-19 has spread rapidly.

“If I get violated and go in that county jail, it’s a suicide mission,” Darryl said.

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As judges release more people from Cook County jail in response to the coronavirus outbreak, many of them are ending up, like Darryl, on the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program. Advocates worry that those on electronic monitoring will be forced to choose between their own health or their family’s well-being and the threat of being sent back to jail if they violate the restrictions placed on them.

Most people on electronic monitoring need permission to see a doctor and are generally not allowed to go to the grocery store, and issues with ankle monitors can often only be solved by in-person visits that are likely to violate social distancing protocols.

“Getting out of the house generally, under normal circumstances, is next to near impossible,” said Matt McLoughlin, director of programs at the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

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There are nearly 2,600 people on pretrial electronic monitoring through the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, an increase of almost 200 since the beginning of March. An additional 378 are under monitoring by the Cook County Circuit Court’s pretrial services department. And nearly 2,000 people recently released from prison are on electronic monitoring as part of the terms of their release, many of them in Cook County.

The rules vary based on the office overseeing the program. Court supervision is typically the least restrictive, with most people being allowed to move freely from 7 a.m.to 7 p.m. Those on the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program are limited to pre-approved regular outings, like work or school. Requests for one-time excursions must be submitted three days in advance and approved by a representative of the sheriff’s office, with exceptions for emergencies.

In an email, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said people on electronic monitoring are now being “given movement to the nearest grocery store if they do not have enough [food] for themselves and their family.” He added that officials have reached out to people on electronic monitoring to check in on them and ensure that they know the process for dealing with medical issues.

But for Darryl, the choice between a doctor’s appointment and violating his house arrest is not hypothetical. In October 2018, after surgery to remove a kidney, he needed a check-up at the hospital to see if the cancer had spread. He spent weeks trying to get permission from the sheriff’s office to see his doctor, spending hours on the phone.

The sheriff’s office said they needed confirmation from his doctor to allow him to leave his home, but the doctor could only provide documentation if Darryl came in to pick up the papers himself. He eventually gave up on asking for permission and went to the hospital anyway, fearing that he would be brought back to jail, but with no other choice. He wasn’t arrested, thanks to advocates from the Bond Fund, who lobbied the sheriff’s office on his behalf, but the experience left him shaken.

“I got so stressed out and depressed about the situation,” Darryl said. After his struggles to see a doctor, he started seeing a therapist to help cope. But now those appointments have been cancelled because of social distancing protocols.

The sheriff’s office told Injustice Watch that it is not their policy to arrest people who violate electronic monitoring in order to get emergency medical treatment, and the office asks that detainees call 911 in case of emergency. However, the sheriff’s office did not say it was relaxing its protocols for other medical appointments.

Advocates: Electronic monitoring is not the solution for jail de-population

As activists have put pressure on officials over the past several weeks to reduce the populations of the Cook County jail and the state’s prisons, they have also argued for relaxed restrictions for those placed on electronic monitoring. In an open letter earlier this month, legal and advocacy groups called on the sheriff’s office to ease restrictions to match the program overseen by the courts, which allow a 12 hour window for movement.

Electronic monitoring equipment

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

The equipment defendants admitted to the Cook County Sheriff’s electronic monitoring equipment are given, including an ankle bracelet (right).

Electronic monitoring has little effect on crime in general, and most people who are currently on it are not a danger to public safety, said Cherise Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates for less pretrial incarceration and less electronic monitoring.

“It’s sort of seen as a way to cover all your bases,” Burdeen said. “If something happens, [police] can go back and review the tapes to see if anyone who was on EM was in the area of a crime that was committed.”

Even those in charge of electronic monitoring expressed some misgivings about this type of supervision.

“We have suggested that for non-violent offenders who have complied with the terms of EM for a period of time, that EM makes little sense,” a spokesman for the Sheriff’s office said in an email, noting that his office does not have a direct say in who is put into its electronic monitoring program.

A spokesman for Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who oversees the pretrial services electronic monitoring, highlighted that judges have other options for monitoring when defendants are considered lower risk, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. He added that therapy is often preferable because “it seeks to change behavior patterns, and results can be achieved after one session.”

The concerns about electronic monitoring are exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. James Kilgore, an activist and researcher who studies so-called community corrections, including electronic monitoring, worries about the agencies’ ability to deal with emergency requests for movement.

Kilgore, who spent time on electronic monitoring under the Illinois Department of Corrections after serving six years in prison for possession of explosives and passport fraud, fears the agencies are–or will soon be–”totally overstretched.” This concern has compounded as more and more correctional officials are testing positive for COVID-19.

The sheriff’s office says that they currently have no lag in processing requests for movement despite challenges related to the pandemic.

Still, Kilgore said people should not be put on electronic monitoring during a pandemic.

“It just adds a whole other dimension of fear to what you do,” he said.

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