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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

What’s it like being tagged?

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The pros and cons of being required to wear a tag for electronic monitoring - a user viewpoint.

Findings from 6 international studies

A new (12 July 2018) HMPPS analytical summary presents the findings of a qualitative research synthesis into The experience of electronic monitoring.

The study, authored by Flora Fitzalan Howard, reviews six studies of the experience of being on a tag in England, Belgium, New Zealand, Canada and the US and asks what’s it’s like to be subject to a tag.

The findings were grouped into 11 themes, set out below:

1. Opportunity for reflection, stabilisation and learning.

People described the period of monitoring as an opportunity for headspace and a ‘time out’, which gave them a chance to reflect on their lives and learn new skills, such as self-discipline. They felt the enforced separation from some antisocial parts of their life, such as certain peers and places, offered them a chance to disengage from aspects of their previous lives.

2. Mixed opportunities for employment. 

Some people experienced employment benefits during their time on EM. They had greater access to jobs and training opportunities, and developed routines that helped them become ‘job ready’. However, others found EM to be a barrier to employment. For example, inflexible restrictions prevented them from accessing overtime and
some companies did not want to employ people on EM. 

3. Mixed impact on relationships – potential for improvement and deterioration. 

By spending more time at home, relationships with loved ones could become closer and support from others more accessible. However, if relationships were already troubled, people on EM appeared to experience strain and tension, and were unable to avoid conflict by leaving the house. Participants found establishing new relationships hard because of the potential stigma of EM, and felt that others (especially children) were under pressure and possibly negatively affected because of EM and the associated restrictions (such as having to cut activities short to make sure they are home on time). The effects, indicated by one study analysing EM experience by gender, appeared to be different for men and women; the findings suggested that women may receive less support and their bonds with children may be negatively affected, whereas men were more likely to be positively affected.

4. Failure to fulfil responsibilities or roles. 

Some people (men and women) on EM struggled to fulfil certain roles or responsibilities. Being able to care for others, or meet the needs of children, was harder because movement was restricted. Time restrictions also affected daily tasks, such as food shopping. One of the studies suggested that women in gender-traditional roles were possibly affected most in this way, as these responsibilities typically fell to them. This theme appeared strongly dependent on how EM was implemented in different countries, and the variation in the restrictions and
schedules typically used.

5. Stigma and shame. 

People on EM reported shame and embarrassment. They disclosed trying, or at least wanting, to hide the tag from others, and adapting (such as not wearing skirts) or avoiding people as a result. Different rules across countries about disclosing being on EM, and the number of hours a person was confined for, appeared to influence the strength of these feelings.

6. Caged freedom – controlled and imprisoned at home.

Although not in prison, some perceived life on EM to be a confined type of freedom; many reported that home
became a prison. How intrusive EM was experienced to be varied according to the characteristics of the 
monitoring, but participants across studies reported some degree of feeling watched and their privacy invaded. Similarly, lack of flexibility, either because programmes were highly structured, or because personal lives were restricted, was experienced.

7. Emotional distress, strain and pressure. 

People on EM reported anxiety, stress, fear and nervousness, triggered by the fact that breaching EM requirements could lead to imprisonment. The pressure to avoid this outcome was substantial and constant for some. Some participants, particularly with fewer non-curfew hours, disclosed rushing and racing to ‘beat the clock’ in daily tasks. They described living in a state of hyper-alertness and being constantly vigilant and ‘on edge’. It is noteworthy that this theme was not apparent for monitored people in the two English studies, where EM was used as a standalone sanction and where curfew hours tended to be shorter than in the other studies.

8. Changes in autonomy, self-sufficiency and normality.

Most participants found life on EM more ‘normal’ than prison, experienced greater freedom and autonomy and
felt less controlled by other people. However, other monitored people, particularly in jurisdictions with longer
curfew hours, or when monitoring was more intrusive, reported feeling very controlled, lacking personal choice,
responsibility and power, and being overly reliant on others to meet their day-to-day needs.

9. Deterrence and temporary enforced compliance.

Participants explained that they complied with requirements mainly because they were scared of being punished with imprisonment if they did not. Although the focus of the study was not long-term evaluation – and so we cannot tell if perceived likely (or unlikely) behaviour change in the longer-term came about – some
participants reported that behaviour change occurred during the period of monitoring, but they felt that  changes would not be maintained outside or beyond this. Participants did not think their attitudes changed on EM either, and they felt offending in the long-term was unlikely to be altered by EM.

10. Sanction alone is insufficient – additional features are needed for compliance and change. 

Participants shared what they believed facilitated or acted as a barrier to compliance with EM and longer-term desistance from crime. They disclosed that EM technology alone was insufficient. Additional helpful features they suggested included: interventions to target their areas of need, support networks, skill development, purposeful use of time, perceiving the sanction to be fair, being treated in a respectful and supportive way, in-person supportive visits as part of the EM schedule (procedural justice), employment, motivation to desist from crime and being able to cope with the challenges of EM.

11. Preferred sanction to imprisonment. 

Although many of the previous themes showed the experience of EM to be challenging and sometimes negative, participants appeared to prefer EM to imprisonment. Many participants did not consider EM to be as punitive as
prison and therefore accepted it. The findings suggested that a possible exception might be for women who are in gender-traditional roles, who are poor or single mothers, as they reported receiving less support, and having more stress than men do while on EM. In these rarer cases, counterintuitively, some women may find prison
noticeably less stressful and difficult, and so possibly preferred.

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All Probation Posts are sponsored by Unilink

With over 20 years’ experience in the criminal justice sector, Unilink is a world leader in probation and community corrections software applications, as well as prisoner self-service, prisoner/case management and prisoner communications. Unilink’s integrated suite of products provide a complete digital solution enabling efficient running of prisons and probation. Underpinned by biometrics it integrates seamlessly to deliver security, efficiency and value – while being proven to help rehabilitate prisoners.

2 Responses

  1. I remember point 7 all too well.
    My tag certainly conditioned me to always think twice before stepping out of my door. It wasn’t until I actually moved out of my house that the behaviour stopped.
    Either way, I was much happier to be at home rather than having to spend another 4.5 months in custody.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment Jacob; it’s always great to get firsthand feedback; especially with someone who has gone on to be so successful both personally and in helping other released prisoners.
      All the best
      Russell

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