The Prison of an Invisible Fence
I thought an ankle monitor would feel like freedom. Instead, it reminded me of the weight of my new world.
BY AARON M. KINZER
Dec 13, 2023
This is part of Time, Online, a Future Tense series on how technology is changing prison.
While serving 13 years in federal prison, I had many visions of freedom. I saw myself coming and going just like everyone else—taking long trips to see my kids and spending time with my aging parents. I dreamed of big, exotic vacations, and also of small moments sitting on the front porch swing.
On the inside, people spend a lot of time mulling over ways to make those visions come true. We walk the track on the recreation yard and sit at tables in the library dissecting new policies and debating ways to get to lower security levels or, most elusively, to get out. These conversations are happening in every prison, every day, all over America. Over the past few years, these conversations became my reality.
I pieced together my prison puzzle and earned four months of home confinement from the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill signed into law in December 2018. It changed my life. I was able to earn time off my sentence and the privilege of serving a portion of my remaining time in the comfort of a family member’s home—as long as I wore a GPS ankle monitor.
My first stop outside of prison was a halfway house, where I lived for almost two months under nearly constant supervision. On May 30, I was released from the halfway house to begin living in home confinement, the last phase and most sought-after form of incarceration. This came with an important condition: wearing a GPS tracker. Before I was allowed to leave, a staff member knelt down to fasten the clunky monitor on my ankle.
I was told to call in to the halfway house and report my arrival at my new residence. But the most important instruction I received as they fastened the monitor around my ankle came in the form of a warning. I was told not to tamper with it and not to allow the battery to die. That instruction was accompanied by an unspoken “or else.” And although there were no more corrections officers with keys and radios to monitor my movements, I still felt followed by an all-seeing, satellite-enabled eye.
While driving from the halfway house to my brother’s home, where I would reside for the foreseeable future, I felt an elation that I had long dreamed about. At the same time, there was a foreboding feeling that I couldn’t shake; I couldn’t ignore the new device that was securely strapped around my ankle. There was no sound or loud beeping, but I still felt as if I was tethered to the system. And I was.
There was a long list of restrictions that governed my life in this rebuilding process. My trips to Walmart or restaurants had to be input into the system and approved at least a week in advance. I had to call the halfway house when I arrived at my job and before I left, despite the fact that I was monitored by satellite 24 hours a day. These redundancies seemed designed as ready-to-deploy excuses to send me back inside. The threat of being returned to prison loomed large every time I left home.
When I was in prison, I wouldn’t have blinked at these requirements—most incarcerated people would give one leg and gladly wear the monitor on the other just to be free. But once the monitor was secured around my ankle and the conditions that came with it were fully explained, I started to feel the weight of my new world.
Over the next few weeks, my new life began to take shape. The ankle monitor, which was a little larger than a deck of cards, became a part of my body. The tight strap began to dig into my leg, and the heavy box weighed uncomfortably on my ankle. Hoping to alleviate the pain, I folded a sock in half and wrapped it around my ankle beneath the monitor strap. I didn’t think twice about it until two weeks later when I was called into the halfway house for an accountability check.
During the security pat-down, a staff member saw the sock and accused me of tampering with the device and attempting to remove it. The agreement I signed when I first got the monitor apparently explained that doing so could send me back to prison to finish out my sentence. I could also be charged with escape. For a few tense moments, I watched the facility staff convene an impromptu meeting to decide my fate. I was relieved when they determined that I was not attempting to escape my digital prison, but in fact only seeking comfort in my confinement. After testing negative for alcohol and drugs, and before I was allowed to leave, the staff reiterated the tamper warning.
On many occasions, I was woken up after midnight by phone calls from the facility telling me that I needed to charge my monitor. They were watching. My fear of returning to prison grew exponentially on a stormy night in July when my GPS monitor died during a four-hour power outage. I called the halfway house to assure them I had not tampered with the monitor but couldn’t charge it until the power returned. They told me to expect a phone call every hour. But what if they didn’t believe me? I felt nauseous. During the next major storm-induced power outage, I sought refuge in my brother’s Dodge Ram truck, with my monitor plugged into a power inverter.
Several times, staff from the facility came to my job to ensure that I was in fact on site. I can’t begin to explain the level of humiliation I felt while co-workers looked on as I stood against a wall, pant leg raised, to have my monitor reset by a facility staff member. Co-workers who were in the dark about my situation were now seeing me in a whole new light. I sensed a difference in my working relationships each time it happened.
One Sunday afternoon, I got permission to shop at a J.C. Penney at the local mall. While there, I received a phone call from the monitoring center. The voice on the other end came through over the loud noise of Sunday churchgoers and shoppers: “Mr. Kinzer, where are you?” I sat in dismay for what seemed like an eternity, asking myself why they were asking such a stupid question. “Eating in the food court at the mall,” I finally answered. The voice ordered me to go back to J.C. Penney. Again, there was an implied “or else”—apparently, I was only approved to go to J.C. Penney, and not the rest of the mall connected to it. I got up angrily and left the mall, making sure to call the facility to inform them that I was returning to my release residence.
I soon learned from another staff member that when a person’s travel location is input into the system, it’s enclosed by an out-of-sight geofence. It reminded me of the invisible fences used to keep dogs inside open yards. I faced a similar situation as I waited on my date in the parking lot of a local bowling alley. The call came. I quickly returned to the inside of the bowling alley, just 20 feet from where I sat in my car. Through learned behavior—and for fear of shock—the dog, and I, never ventured outside digital borders.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 57,000 people have been placed in home confinement since March 2020. Many thousands more are hoping to join their ranks. And while digital prison is better than its brick-and-mortar alternative, surviving in this gray space of freedom comes at a steep price.
On Aug. 2, after two months, my monitor was removed. The “or else” that had loomed over my freedom like a dark cloud was finally gone.