This story was produced as a collaboration between The TRiiBE and the Reader.
Editor’s note: We have changed the names and other identifying information of some of the sources quoted in this story to protect their anonymity, as they are still awaiting trial.
While awaiting trial, Shane (a pseudonym) has worn an electronic ankle monitor and been confined to their home, a high-rise apartment they share with their elderly mother and two children, for over two years. During their confinement, they have been visited hundreds of times by sheriff’s deputies who were summoned by erroneous automatic alerts that accused Shane of leaving home without authorization.
Deputies came so often that Shane’s toddler began to think they were family friends. “He calls them his buddies because he’s so used to seeing them,” Shane said. But their oldest son understood who the deputies were. “And that’s why a lot of these children grow into men and they disrespect authority, or they feel like they hate the police because they see them doing things that are not conducted in a proper manner.”
The alerts that sent texts to Shane’s phone and deputies to their front door originated from Track Group, a subcontractor that operates ankle monitors used by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO). Track Group sends alerts to Protocol, a call center that then sends the texts. Shane is one of hundreds of people who were similarly inundated with text alerts from Protocol while on CCSO’s pretrial home-monitoring program over an 18-month period, according to data newly obtained by The TRiiBE and the Reader.
As of press time, 2,017 people are wearing electronic ankle bracelets under CCSO’s pretrial house arrest program. They’re required to remain inside their home 24 hours a day, but can leave for court-approved “essential movement” to go to work or run errands. Sheriff Tom Dart has advocated for repealing the provisions pertaining to essential movement. According to a recent article by The Intercept, Dart has systematically limited people who use essential movement for work from also running errands.
The alerts, which often summon sheriff’s deputies and carry an implicit threat of being taken to jail, can be disruptive and frightening. Many of the people who were texted repeatedly said in interviews they were inside their homes when the alerts occurred.
Two people who spoke to The TRiiBE and the Reader said that sheriff’s deputies told them their electronic monitors showed them being miles away, even when the deputies were in their home with them at the time.
“They called me and told me that I was in Delaware,” Shane said. “I was like, no, I’m home. I don’t have any family in Delaware. And to be honest, I have no clue where that is.’”
Another person said a deputy told them the electronic monitor showed they were in Lake Michigan in the middle of the winter. A lawyer said their client was told the same thing.
The texts were sent automatically. According to Shereen Mohammad, a communications specialist at CCSO, Protocol staff review alerts only after texts are sent. In a previous story, we reported that in 2021, 80 percent of alerts were found to be false, and spoke to several people on pretrial monitoring who received frequent alerts accusing them of going AWOL even though they were inside their homes. We also chronicled the tribulations of Jeremy “Mohawk” Johnson, who documented his two-year ordeal of repeated false electronic-monitor alerts while he awaited trial on charges stemming from a 2020 protest.
Since then, we have obtained data on hundreds of thousands of text messages sent to some 10,000 people who, like Shane, were in the home-monitoring program between January 1, 2020, and June 22, 2022. The data shows that Johnson’s experience was far from unique.
During that 18-month period, most people on electronic home monitoring got a text from Protocol about three times a month, on average. But a significant number of people were texted far more often. One thousand people on home monitoring were texted an average of three times a week. Thirty people received upwards of 20 texts per week. Twenty-two people got more than 1,000 texts, an average of two a day.
Tracey Harkins, a criminal attorney who often represents defendants who are on home monitoring, said that attorneys have no choice but to advise their clients to call Protocol every time they receive a text, and to film themselves to prove they’re at home. She added that her clients have told her that the call center sometimes doesn’t pick up. “They call and the phones keep ringing and no one answers,” she said.
The Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts reported a similar pattern in a September 2022 Electronic Monitoring Review. Organizations calling the Protocol center on behalf of their clients reported experiencing “no answer or hours of wait time.”
During the 18-month period we analyzed, Shane has been texted an average of six times a day. One of the alerts led to deputies arresting Shane. While attending school (with court approval), the electronic monitor had alerted, accusing her of leaving, a violation of the pretrial release conditions. After Shane’s lawyer presented proof that Shane never left the school, the State’s Attorney’s Office, which initially petitioned the court to hear the violation, dropped it. Two days later, the Sheriff released Shane from the jail.
Shane said they haven’t been able to take their toddler outside to socialize and play because of the terms of home monitoring. “[H]e hasn’t been around other children. He’s never seen outside. He’s never seen grass. He’s never seen snow. He’s never been to a park,” they said. “The only thing he had ever did up until now is go to the doctor. So now when he goes places, he’s confused because he’s not used to seeing it.
“I’m not allowed to go to PTA meetings. I’m not allowed to go on field trips. I don’t go to report card pickup. I can’t do any of those things and I was a very active parent before I got on this house arrest,” Shane continued. “I feel like it has really affected my children more than it has affected me.”
Credit: Robin Carnilius for The TRiiBE
False alerts accusing people of absconding from home are just one of the reasons they’re texted by sheriff’s subcontractors; another reason is because their ankle bracelets are not getting a strong enough signal. When a person on home monitoring gets one of these texts, they have to step outside for five minutes so the bracelet can try to get a better signal.
During the 18-month period we analyzed, 234 people received an average of three low-signal texts a week telling them to go outside for five minutes; 37 people averaged more than ten a week. One person, Jackie (a pseudonym), was texted more than 800 times, and said they had to step outside due to signal issues more than 500 times over one year on home monitoring. Like others who received excessive false alarms, Jackie’s messages were often followed by the arrival of sheriff’s deputies, no matter the time of day or night, up to three times a week.
“I was literally at my house,” Jackie said. “I just be sitting at my house. They do that constantly. I don’t think that [ankle monitor] even works, honestly.”
Thirty-five people were texted to step outside between 11 PM and 5 AM about twice a week, on average. Seven people were texted more than four nights a week.
“They came early [in the] morning,” between 1 AM and 4 AM, Jackie said. “They sometimes come in the day, most of the time at night.”
Leslie (a pseudonym) also got more than 800 low-signal texts while on home monitoring. “When they came to my house my daughter was asleep. They woke my daughter up. Do you know how much that hurts? It’s traumatizing,” Leslie said. They added that sheriff’s deputies visited their home over 100 times between March 2020 and October 2021.
Once in December 2020, and again in May 2021, thousands of people were texted to step outside for five minutes as a result of what the CCSO called “brief technical issues.”
An optional national standard for electronic monitoring devices that was released in 2016 by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) requires these systems to be accurate within 30 meters (about 98 feet) at least 90 percent of the time to be certified as compliant.
While the NIJ certification is completely optional for both the device manufacturer and any law enforcement agency, CCSO’s device vendor, Track Group, still claims to be accurate within 50 feet when signal confidence is “high,” 100-140 feet when “medium,” and anything further away as “invalid.”
When asked about NIJ certification, CCSO referred us to the county’s chief procurement officer, whose office did not respond to requests for comment.
The Appleseed report concluded that the CCSO’s home monitoring program “has the potential to violate people’s due process rights.” The report made three major recommendations: dramatically shrink the use of electronic monitoring in favor of less restrictive supervision ; taking control of the program out of the sheriff’s hands; and having judges weigh in on whether to jail people suspected of violating their release.
James Kilgore, a media fellow at MediaJustice and the author of Understanding E-Carceration, said the problem of false alarms reflects a popular mythology that surveillance tech is precise and accurate.
“A lot of the information about false alarms shows us that these devices aren’t accurate, they’re not well-designed, well-made technology on their own terms, but they’re actually very dangerous to others who are victimized by its inaccuracies,” Kilgore said. “We need to make sure that we’re not using technology that’s not vetted in any proper way that’s disastrous for people. If we start scratching the surface of the tech, along with diving deeper into the complexities of incarceration, we’re seeing all the mythologies of punishment and the power of technology. That’s their bread and butter.”
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