Incarcerated City

By Caroline Hill

“From electronic ankle monitors and predictive-policing algorithms to workplace surveillance systems, technologies originally developed for policing and prisons have rapidly expanded into nonjuridical domains, including hospitals, schools, banking, social services, shopping malls, and digital life. Rooted in the logics of racial disparity and subjugation, these purportedly unbiased technologies not only extend prison spaces into the public sphere but also deepen racial hierarchies and engender new systems for social control.”

– Ruha Benjamin, Captivating Technology

We are too easily seduced by technology and too quick to imagine there must be a technological fix or solution to the deep moral and structural challenges we face.

This project is the summary of my thoughts, notes, research, and provocations on electronic ankle monitoring, set within the larger context of the prison industrial complex, punishment, surveillance, and abolition. It’s a project about what happens when the prison extends beyond the traditional prison walls and seeps into your community, your home, and your body. Through these reflections and questions, I tried to identify the connections between PIC and slavery, racism, neoliberalism, urban geography, and technology. I hope you will start to make these connections too, if you haven’t already. Abolition provides us a new path forward, and gives us the opportunity to build a future that revolves around care, healing, and shared community. It’s about knowing and unknowing, learning and unlearning. Abolition allows us to get at the root of the problem, and escape from the same framework and footprint of reform. This project just scratches the surface. I hope these provocations prompt you to question what you know about “crime and punishment” and begin to see things in a new light.

An Excerpt from Prison By Any Other Name:

“Colette Payne had been in Chicago’s Cook County Jail for a week when she was offered the option of being released on electronic monitoring and house arrest… Payne chose the monitor – an electronic shackle that would essentially incarcerate her in her home, forcing her to stay within a certain radius, or else the police would be alerted. The monitor was presented as her only alternative to incarceration, and she wanted to be able to live at home so that she could see her children freely. What Payne hadn’t counted on were the extreme restrictions that came with house arrest and monitoring. Every step beyond one hundred feet of her mother’s doorway had to be preapproved by her probation officer. Employees from the sheriff’s department came to Payne’s home to conduct inspections, alerting the entire housing complex that she was being monitored. Payne was unable to take her young children to school or to the store, she knows they were affected by her confinement… Payne missed family barbeques. She couldn’t even take the garbage out, since the dumpsters were at the end of the housing complex, beyond where she was allowed to go” (2).

– Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law

“The term “prison industrial complex” was introduced by activists and scholars to contest prevailing beliefs that increased levels of crime were the root cause of mounting prison populations. Instead, they argued, prison construction and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit.” (84)

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?

Background to prison industrial complex

“These relationships constitute what we now call a prison industrial complex”

- Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete

Public corrections vs. private industry

(See Are Prisons Obsolete? for better understanding of how PIC is fuelled by privatization patterns)


Eric Stanley + Nat Smith, Captive Genders

(Photo Credit: Syrus Marcus Ware)

Ruha Benjamin reminds me that it extends even further than this:

She asks, how does carcerality extend even further into the everyday lives who are purportedly free? racialized groups continue to pay much higher price

Technology is not just a bystander that happens to be at the scene of the crime; it actually aids and abets the process by which carcerality penetrates social life.

- Ruha Benjamin, Captivating Technology

“Prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition is a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy. While some people might think of abolition as primarily a negative project — “Let’s tear everything down tomorrow and hope for the best” — PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more. Things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.”

- Mariame Kaba

What is Electronic Monitoring, Really?

Don't be Fooled


Net Widening

Sex Offenders

  • Lifetime ban to GPS monitoring
  • Techno-life without parole
  • Exclusion zones


  • BI Incorporated – GEO Group (founded in 1970s)
  • Largest provider of ankle monitors in US
  • Companies that earned millions in contracts to run and serve prisons have shifted business models to add EM of the same population
  • Profit margins widen so long as growing number of people find themselves subject to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring and control

Immigrants/ Undocumented People

  • In 2009, BI signed a 5-year contract with ICE for $272 million to provide ankle monitors for 27,000 people awaiting immigration hearings
  • 30,000 immigrants on EM on any given day


  • Tethering students with EM with serious truancy records
    • not considering the social determinants of health or other underlying factors (including poverty, family dynamics etc. etc.)


  • Local courts increasingly turning to EM with house arrest as a way to solve problems of jail and over crowding of low risk offenders and people awaiting trail
Digital prisons are to mass incarceration what Jim Crow was to slavery

– Michelle Alexander


Impact on family members (how do you care for others?)

“…[T]he intense movement…forcibly shape the contours of someone’s life – and a family’s life.”

- Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

Mobility: tracking every move

Unable to fully participate in the world at large

( a smaller, confined world is m a p p e d out for you )

    EM makes it difficult to:
  • Go to job interviews
  • Access employment + education
  • Receive medical treatment
  • Responsibly parent children
  • Take part in any family/community life
    Exclusion zones may prevent people from:
  • Visiting homes of family members
  • Religious services
  • School
  • Work


-- The threat of literal prison always looms --

Would you want to wear certain clothes to conceal/hide monitor from plan sight? (long pants only?)

Even if your monitor is concealed at your workplace, you may still have to alter your behaviour in ways that impede your ability to “pass” (i.e. needing to explain your actions to your employer or law enforcement

This is known as “walking the box”

In order to re-establish the monitor’s cellular signal

“Passing is a practice that some people choose to engage in to ‘manage social stigma, through constructing and enacting a social integration strategy where one presents themselves as what one is not.”

**Not a perfect social technology BUT one that enables agency and forms of everyday resistance that support better quality of life for people whose rights and freedoms are restricted by normative society.

However, some may abstain from activities or certain kinds of work that would require clothing and/or movement that would visually reveal the monitor. This could result in removing oneself from society in order to stay out of sight

Carceral Citizens: “People who live alongside free people but cannot legally access that freedom themselves. Carceral citizens aren’t simply “second-class citizens” – their discriminatory treatment doesn’t result from their constitutional rights being cast aside. Instead, they just don’t have the same rights as other people.”

(Schenwar & Law, Prison by Any Other Name)

ELECTRONIC SPACES: techno-corrections & urban futures

Interested in the socio-spatial aspects of these technologies

Fundamental social and legal conceptions of urban space are being altered by the application of the criminal justice technologies in cites.


*These questions cannot be fully answered here but do deserve attention

The changes are already happening. Have you been paying attention?


*electronic ankle monitors will likely go out of fashion*

- but they will just exist in new forms –



( what if it became as invasive as Facebook or Instagram? )


  • a venture/app heralded as alternative to cash bail
  • promoted as a “decarceration start up”
  • Jay-Z has invested millions
  • idea that it addresses pre-trial detention, but instead of unconditionally allowing people to remain out of jail awaiting trial, Promise uses surveillance and GPS monitoring to ensure compliance

How could this possibly be designed out of care?

Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) issued a warning. Promise,

“helps expand the scope of what the Prison Industrial Complex is and will be in the future. The digital sphere and tech world of the 2000’s is the next sector to have a stronghold around incarceration and will mold what incarceration looks like and determine the terrain on which prison abolitionists have to fight as a result.”

“All of these tools tout their services for the sake of public safety, but easily become another way to criminalize people and turn a profit for the tech sector. Promise, despite being supported by a Black man who’s had his own fights with the criminal justice system, is no different.”

– Alxyandra Goodwyn, BYP100

These apps and alternative options are still turning to technology for a fix and a solution

Promise, in addition to those other apps exemplify what Ruha Benjamin calls “The New Jim Code.”

We need to continue looking to critical technology thinkers who are pushing back against technological solutions. To reiterate: we should be moving towards abolition, not reform

Location monitoring offers the possibility of linking GPS to massive databases of undesirables, a virtual no-fly list for gentrified spaces. Indeed, those with histories of mental illness, violence, substance abuse, incarceration, unemployment, sex work, crossing gender barriers or even receiving state benefits could easily be included in online registries. Techno-racial profiling also lands on the possible agenda. Los Angeles has already applied electronic monitoring to people with histories of gang affiliation. With increasing numbers of people carrying GPS devices in their smart phones, developing urban population flow systems to keep the good people in and the bad people out becomes quite feasible. Each individual could end up with their own personalized techno-map of the city, indicating where they were and were not allowed.”

- Kilgore, 2014

Scholars + activists predicting that “e-gentrification” is where we are headed as entire communities become trapped in digital prisons that keep them locked out of neighbourhoods where jobs, opportunity and prosperity can be found


In Simone Browne’s book Dark Matters, she connects contemporary surveillance technologies (GPS monitoring) to America’s long history of controlling where Black people live, move, work, and play.

She traces the ways in which “surveillance is nothing new to Black people” from the branding of enslaved people and the shackling of prison labourers to Jim crow segregation and the home visits of welfare agencies. These historical inequities, as Browne states, influence where and on whom new tools like ankle monitors are imposed.

We need to have a better understanding of:

The city as the urban panopticon: how the state exercises social control Urban planning as a means of controlling urban disorder

City plan: order + surveillance OVER
pleasure + opportunity



(… always comes back to Foucault)

“Those representations are typically of human beings but presented in terms of physical parameters other than their photographic image. The representation may be a set of changing locational coordinates as in the case of GPS systems that track a parolee/probationer’s movement in space relative to particular coordinates (e.g., a place that the individual must be close to, or conversely is prohibited from approaching). Urban space becomes a set of polygons represented by either a containment area or a forbidden territory for a particular individual for a particular time. The representation of urban space might also be transformed into a set of black and white images in which interest is focused on the whitest of the images because that image depicts a different pattern of thermal energy than its physical surroundings” (Nunn, 2001).


Other important notes from Samuel Nunn’s paper on urban law enforcement technologies:

“Biometric system is largely useless without a broad and deep infrastructure of databases containing catalogs of individual subjects and their biometric parameters. It is the database underlying biometric systems that comprises the standard against which deviations are judged” (274).

So how is it that urban space is programmed into a technological system? Machine systems isolate deviations – for example:

“The parolee moves outside the polygon of movement permitted by the network connected by an ankle bracelet to the GPS system. This deviation is flagged and creates a new communications alert to a parole officer, who must then physically locate the subject in urban space. Or, given the imaging parameters programmed into a FLIR camera mounted on a helicopter patrolling an urban area, the thermal signature of a residence within an urban neighborhood falls outside the normal signature of the surrounding housing units. This deviation is also flagged by a machine which alerts its operators who dispatch patrol units to physically investigate the invisible temperature differential” (274).

What should these thermal patterns look like? What do deviations of these patterns look like?

Urban spaces contain codes that are only decipherable by machinic vision – humans cannot see

  1. Machine detects codes
  2. Codes are interpreted (based on standards programmed into machine)
  3. Certain temps, frequencies, predetermined patterns of behaviour all occur within particular spaces, but significance remains unremarkable without assistance of machine systems
    • What did they do before? Law enforcement relying on personal observation, informants, or plain luck???
  4. Machines can decode information embedded in urban space without human touch
  5. Urban space becomes filtered in basic ways for patterns that are present
    • Imaging systems, GPS, video surveillance ALL OF IT actively decodes urban space
  6. Spatial movements inconsistent with patterns of movements that are permissible for individuals with EM prompts action

What if these machines cannot accurately code what these patterns are?

Nunn provides interesting example:

“[W]e are indeed creating a new world of urban law enforcement. Do we yet know what life in that world will be like?” (276).

A practice of love centered around community care
**to destroy**
**to grow**

No future is inevitable. We can expand what counts — we can imagine, speculate and ask what if.

Let’s take our imaginations to the limit.

What defines a prison?

OR is it a combination of the way the state acts on people without their consent?

These can all take other forms: Forms that may be less easily recognized as the violence they really are

  • Manipulation
  • Confinement
  • Punishment
  • Deprivation

Surveillance is so ubiquitous, it’s almost invisible.


“Locked buildings are being replaced with slightly less menacing-looking locked buildings, brutal surveillance and surveillance that may appear less brutal. Oppressive institutions that bear the name “prison” are being replaced with institutions that do not bear that name but are still Somewhere Else – places and systems designed to cut off marginalized people from society.”

Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law

Non-carceral ways to confront violence, mental health problems, addiction and other harms

The question is not ‘can prisons go away’ the question is

‘how do we make them go away???’

What would a world without police, prisons, detention, extra judicial executions, shoot-to-kill policies, racial profiling, massive spying and surveillance look like?

"An undoing of borders, prisons, police, settler states, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and imperialism and all other forms of authority that are tangled together to produce the era we live in."

– Abolition Journal

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A post shared by Patrisse Cullors-Brignac (@osopepatrisse)

“People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”

Mariame Kaba

“Abolition is not absence, it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities. So those who feel in their gut deep anxiety that abolition means knock it all down, scorch the earth and start something new, let that go. Abolition is building the future from the present. In all of the ways we can.”

– Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Intersecting movements for Black liberation, prison abolition, disability justice, digital justice, trans liberation and m o r e are rising to challenge the structures that underlie prison and envision a new path forward.

We need:

The creation of safe, caring, thriving communities heavily invest in:

We need to invest in:

We need a “justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”

– Dr. Angela Y. Davis

The possibilities for abolition are E N D L E S S

“Moving toward real freedom will mean taking criminalization out of the equation. As long as we retain the idea of a “criminal” – along with entrenched, racialized ideas about who a criminal is and what they look like – alternatives will always involve the idea of putting people Somewhere Else.’

Abolition Resource Guide

Here are some additional sources on the abolition of policing, prisons, and punishment. This guide includes a combination of short pieces, long-form articles, books, toolkits, organizations, and websites. There is so much more to learn and unlearn. This is just the beginning.


So You’re Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist

What Abolitionists Do

Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police

We Want Abolition in our Lifetime

Reformism Isn’t Liberation, It’s Counterinsurgency

Is Prison Necessary?

Cripping Abolition

Police Reforms You Should Always Oppose

What the Prison-Abolition Movement Wants

Black Communities Have Known about Mutual Aid All Along

Three Reasons Advocates Must Move Beyond Demanding Release for “Nonviolent Offenders”

Police Reform Works - For the Police

Community Defense: Sarah T. Hamid on Abolishing Carceral Technologies

Repackaging Mass Incarceration

Hostile Architecture — Electronic Monitoring

The First Step Acts Opens the Door to Digital Incarceration


Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex by Critical Resistance Publications Collective

Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms Book by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law

Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life Edited by Ruha Benjamin

Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith

Race after Technology by Ruha Benjamin

Change Everything Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore Edited by Naomi Murakawa

Agenda to Build Back Black Futures by Black Youth Project 100

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

Digitizing the Carceral State Book review by Dorothy E. Roberts

Dark Matters by Simone Browne

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated WOmen by Victoria Law

Fumbling Towards Repair A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators by Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan


The Digital Abolitionists (To find abolitionist groups in your community)

Abolition For the People

Project Nia

8 to Abolition

Critical Resistance

Abolition Journal: Study Guide

Interrupting Criminalization

Transform Harm

Black Youth Project 100

Resource Guide: Prisons, Police, and Punishment


Abolish Policing Toolkit

#DefundPolice Toolkit

Reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps in policing

We Came to Learn: A Call to Action for Police-Free Schools

What is Abolition?

No New Jails NYC

Mutual Aid 101 (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez)

Mutual Aid Resources by Prison Culture (Mariame Kaba)


On the Road with Abolition: Assessing Our Steps Along the Way

Ruthie Gilmore, "When the Prison Industrial Complex Masquerades as Social Welfare"

A message from the Future II: The Years of Repair

Abolition books being published in 2021:

We Do This 'til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba

Change Everything: Racial Capitalism & the Case for Abolition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Abolition. Feminism. Now by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Eric Meiners, Beth Richie

How To Abolish Prisons: Lessons from the Movement Against Imprisonment by Rachel Herzing, Justin Piché

Lessons in Liberation: An Abolitionist Educators’ Toolkit by Critical Resistance Abolitionist Educators Workgroup

Prisons Make Us Safer, and 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration by Victoria Law


A very special thank you to Nasma Ahmed of Digital Justice Lab, to Emily Fitzpatrick of Trinity Square Video and to Mari Zhou for your leadership, organization, inspiration, and guidance.

Many thanks to Roelle Santa Maria and Marcia Diaz for your design and artwork contributions.