It was about 2 a.m. when James Kilgore got a call that forced him to make a tough decision.
His mother was having chest pains and had called 911. She was sick and elderly, and Kilgore worried these might be her last moments, so his instinct was to jump in his car and rush to her side. But there was a problem. Kilgore had been in prison for a murder that happened during a bank robbery he was involved with and had been released just a few months earlier in 2009. He had an electronic monitor strapped around his left ankle. He was under tight restrictions about when he could leave his house, and if he left, the Illinois Department of Corrections would know.
“So I had to make a decision about whether I would go to the hospital and violate my rules of electronic monitoring and risk going back to prison, or whether I would stay at home and run the risk of the fact that maybe my mother would pass away from a heart attack,” said Kilgore.
Kilgore’s partner went the hospital in his stead, and Kilgore met up with both of them the next day. Kilgore started talking to others leaving prison about the way monitoring was a barrier to getting a job and contributing again to their families and communities.
Reentering society on an electronic monitor
When most people leave an Illinois prison, they aren’t actually done with the Department of Corrections. In addition to their sentence, they serve a period of “mandatory supervised release.” The state can put tight restrictions on when they can leave their homes, and they sometimes have to wear electronic devices that track their location. The Department of Corrections reports they are currently using electronic monitors to track about 2,800 people.
Kilgore has been pushing for a bill that would eliminate the use of electronic monitoring for most of those people. The bill would still allow monitors to be used for people who were in prison for certain crimes and for some people who violate the rules of their release.
Kilgore says he’s talked with other people who have been in emergency situations like he was and weren’t able to leave their house. But he says for most people, the biggest problem is the everyday tasks they need to get done, like shopping for groceries or getting a job. During committee hearings on the bill, there were stories about people who struggled to return to daily life while on a monitor.
A lawyer told the story of a man who was four hours late to his first day on the job because it took that long for someone to pick up at the 800 number he called to get permission to leave his house.
Opposition to the bill
During the committee hearings, there was also testimony from Jason Sweat, chief legal counsel for the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which makes decisions about the rules a person has to follow when released. Sweat expressed concern that when someone is in prison for some crimes, like certain stalking offenses, the state should be able to monitor them once they leave.
“They’ve demonstrated that they are dangerous to other people, that they do not have regard for simple orders, and that is why monitoring on those individuals is necessary in the eyes of the board,” said Sweat.
Sweat said he was sympathetic to the problems faced by former prisoners trying to reestablish their lives, but said even if the bill passes, people leaving prison could still be put on restrictions about where they could go and when. The new law eliminating electronic monitoring would simply change the way their movements are tracked by the department. He said instead of a change in the law, the state is trying to address the issues by creating new policies, like giving people on monitoring more time away from home.
“We think that’s a reasonable way to handle this issue. This bill is not the reasonable way to do that,” said Sweat.
But James Kilgore says there is something fundamentally wrong with the monitors that can’t just be reformed. He said the monitors turn the community into a kind of prison, and no matter what, that makes returning to society harder.
“Why don't we emphasize giving them access to opportunities instead of putting them on a device which furthers their incarceration and makes it much less likely that they're going to be able to access anything that's going to take them forward?” said Kilgore.
The bill to eliminate electronic monitoring for people leaving prison has already passed the Illinois House and is now in the Senate.
Shannon Heffernan covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow her @shannon_h.