Tether Ball and Chain

ball and chain

As a condition of my parole I had to wear a GPS tether.  Tethers have become a common tool utilized both for parole and for those on bond awaiting trial.  It provides a way to control moderate risk individuals without having to incarcerate them.  Tethers come in two standard types. Alcohol tethers are used to monitor an individual and raise an alert if alcohol is consumed in violation of their parole conditions.  GPS tethers monitor an individual’s location to within 3 feet. This is useful for those serving house arrest or have restrictions on where an individual is allowed to travel.  Sounds reasonable right?

Like so many other things associated with the MDOC the reality of the situation is not at all like the theory.  While placing a person on tether means that they are not locked up and costing the state $23,000 per year, in fact it doesn’t cost the state anything, the person being monitored is required to cover the cost.  In the case of GPS tether the fee charged is around $363 per month. For a 24-month parole that is $8712.  Making monthly payments is a requirement of parole.  Failure to do so is a parole violation and could send you back to prison.  While I didn’t have to pay the full amount every month I had to pay something.  Any unpaid amount remaining at the end of the parole would be turned over to a collection agency.

Those on GPS tether not only have their every movement tracked.  Every movement away from home must be scheduled and approved in advance by your parole agent.  The date, time, location, and purpose of the trip had to be disclosed.  No spur of the moment decisions like running to the corner store for milk when you run out or accepting an invitation for coffee today. Life becomes deliberate, ordered, and simplified, in other words a lot like prison.

Parole is supposed to be a transition period from the controlled environment of prison back into society.  But where is the transition? Parole conditions remain static during the entire parole period.  There were no milestones that would restore additional freedoms, such as successful completion of programming, successful drug screenings, or attaining gainful employment.

As with everything else associated with the MDOC it’s all stick and no carrot.  At the time that the GPS tether was attached to my leg, I was informed that if I was to cut it off in an attempt to abscond from parole I would be subject to a $10,000 fee for what is at most a $100 piece of electronics.  GPS tethers are another example of a contracted service.  Somebody, sometime, sold the state a bill of goods scheme to make money for themselves and the department.  While I was in prison the rumor was that the state had bought 10,000 tethers in preparation of a move to reduce the prison population by increasing the number of people granted parole at their ERD.  While the parole rates have increased and prison population has decreased I can’t say for certain whether or not tethers played a role in this. All I know is that my decision regarding a plea agreement in my case was predicated on the low odds of receiving a parole at my ERD.  When I did receive my parole at my ERD, it was evident that something had changed. And that if the current conditions had prevailed at the time of my sentencing I have pursued a different plea.  But that is water under the bridge.  You can only make decisions based on the present, not an unknown future.

GPS tethers are routinely used as a condition of bail for those considered a moderate flight risk.  A recent case brought out an interesting bit of information.  A youthful offender accused of a violent crime was denied bail even with a GPS tether because the prosecution claimed that the tether could be cut off on a Friday evening and that there would be no one to follow-up on the abscondsion until Monday, thus giving the accused 2 days to flee.  This claim doesn’t jive with my experience.  If I was out of place the tether would alert me and if I didn’t get home within 10 minutes, I could expect a call from the monitoring center inquiring as to my whereabouts.  If I did not respond to a phone call the tether could be remotely triggered to alert me to call in.  I find it difficult to believe that if I failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact me that my parole agent wouldn’t be alerted, even on the weekend.  While parole agents don’t work 24/7 there is always somebody on duty and no doubt the police would be notified certainly in less than the 2 days claimed by the prosecutor.  Because if that is the case there is 2/7 of the time a gaping hole in the system.

At my first meeting with my parole agent I was informed that the tether required 2 hours to recharge every day.  One twelfth of every day for 2 years was spent sitting in a chair plugged into an electrical outlet, 1460 hours or 60.83 days give or take of enforced down time.  The tether connects to the charger using magnets so I did not trust myself to try and recharge while sleeping since rolling over under the covers could dislodge the charger.

I also did not get a good night’s sleep while wearing the tether.  It was loose on my ankle and if I slept wrong it could get pinned between my leg and the bed.  That was enough at times for the tether to lose contact with the GPS satellite.  When that happened, the tether would flash a warning light and vibrate.  Generally, that was enough to wake me up.  Then I would have to get up and move around in order to reestablish contact.  At times it was even necessary to go outside under the open sky to make contact.  At least a hand full of times I got called because my GPS was triggered by the loss of signal while I slept.

I had heard stories of guys using aluminum foil to block the signal of their tether for short periods of time to sneak off without disclosing their true location.  They probably lied about their whereabouts to the monitoring agent.  I never could understand how my body could shield the GPS signal in my own one-story house, while I could ride up an elevator in an office building without incident.  I guess it just goes to prove that this technology isn’t fool proof.  In my experience serving parole on GPS tether is a lot like boat ownership.  The happiest days are the first and last, and it is an expensive hobby with lots of hidden responsibilities.