As the country adjusts to a new, precarious normal, people are making last-minute dashes to the supermarket, scouring their corner stores for soap and disinfectants, and heading to their local pharmacies to care for any medical needs. One by one, cities and states have been directing their residents to shelter in place and more aggressively practice social distancing to quell the spread of the coronavirus.

While one might assume that this period of isolation requires little adjustment for those who are on electronic monitoring, this new reality is far from easy. For people who are subject to electronic monitoring, whether as a condition of their pretrial release or as a part of their parole requirement, meeting day-to-day needs in the midst of this crisis has become extremely difficult thanks to tight restrictions that determine when they can leave their homes and where they can go.  

Electronic monitors that track individuals’ movement have been touted by Departments of Corrections and big tech manufacturers as “alternatives to incarceration” and an option to ease jail overcrowding. While GPS monitors—often placed at an individual’s ankle—can accompany someone’s release from jail pretrial or facilitate an early termination of one’s sentence through parole, they come with immense burdens that can diminish many of the benefits of not being detained.

More restrictions amid widespread isolation

Among those burdens is a reliance on family or loved ones to bring necessities when people are confined at home with no ability to run errands for themselves. Now, when stocking up on household supplies and food is critical and waves of panic buying continuously empty store shelves, the isolation of electronic monitoring is becoming even more challenging.

The almost 2,000 individuals placed on electronic monitoring in Cook County, Illinois, must place movement requests before they leave their home. Permission for “one-time movements” like job interviews, attending funerals, or scheduling doctors appointments must be requested at least 72 hours in advance. Those requests must include the name and title of a contact person at the desired destination, the exact time of the visit, and the mode of transportation to be used. Such tight restrictions don’t provide space or consideration for those last-minute needs that so many across the country find themselves seeking out during a pandemic. When cleaning supplies, canned goods, paper products, and toiletries are flying off shelves, who has three days to get permission to visit the supermarket?

“As people are making a rush or a run on the grocery stores, one of our big concerns is for people who are on electronic monitoring, many of which don’t have other friends or family members in their home,” said Matt McLoughlin, the director of programs at the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “I think maybe one of the biggest stressors is the lack of availability now of Lysol and bleach, like these people who were on electronic monitoring did not have the luxury to be able to be one of the first people to get to the store to have those things and now they have to go without them.”

But it’s not just one-time errands that are subject to stringent control. Before they can go to work or school or participate in job skills training, people on electronic monitoring must request permission and confirm that these “ongoing activities” do not exceed 40 hours per week, occur in multiple locations, or have nonfluctuating hours. Permission isn’t guaranteed. Such restrictions can result in significant personal, emotional, and financial strain, as Lavette Mayes, a current advocate with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, experienced firsthand. After being incarcerated for 14 months in Cook County Jail, Mayes spent 145 days on electronic monitoring. During that time, she was denied permission to work, making her financially reliant on her family as she sought to provide for her two children.

“It was like you were still in prison inside your house. It was to the point where people would come and be like, ‘Well I’ll come by here and I’ll bring you something,’ and I couldn’t even go to the curb to get it—to even get the groceries or something, if people brought it by,” said Mayes. “It was so inhumane, how they treated you.”

Delayed access to medical care

The tight restrictions of electronic monitoring do not loosen even when people need to seek out health care. As we have seen thus far, coronavirus symptoms can emerge unexpectedly and forcefully amongst those who have tested positive. Those with severe symptoms may require immediate care, especially those in vulnerable populations like the elderly or the immunosuppressed.

“So many people right now are just afraid of what happens if I go to the hospital, and I test positive and then I’m going to be saddled with all this medical debt,” says McLoughlin. “In addition to that, am I going to do this and then get [reprimanded for violating the terms of my monitoring] for trying to check on my health?”

While Mayes was not in the midst of a public health crisis at the time of her electronic monitoring, she too has experienced the difficulties of seeking medical care while on house arrest. When she was placed on electronic monitoring, she had just undergone serious surgery that left her with 47 staples that would need to be removed within a week. However, when it was time for that crucial follow-up visit to the hospital, the sheriff’s office was slow to grant her movement in time. Had she left for the hospital without approval, Mayes could have been re-incarcerated on an escape charge. When she finally was granted permission to visit the hospital, it was already three days after her recommended appointment.

Mayes credits her family and community members with helping her get through almost five months on electronic monitoring, and says she can only imagine what that experience would have been like at this current moment.

“When you’re on house arrest, you’re affecting your whole family. You’re affecting the communities that you’re in because you don’t have movement. They have to go out of their way just to make sure that you are not locked back up,” says Mayes. “I can’t imagine how it is with the coronavirus going on and you can’t even get food brought to the house. They can’t even try to get anything to comfort themselves.”

The Chicago Community Bond Fund and over 75 community, legal, and advocacy groups have released an open letter with key demands for Cook County public officials in the wake of the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Among the demands is a request to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and Pretrial Services Division that protocols and restrictions related to those on electronic monitoring be loosened to allow for more freedom of movement. The groups write that current policies routinely deny those on electronic monitoring the ability to perform “essential tasks of life”—tasks that seem to be growing more essential by the day.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.