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May 7, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash | [ssba]

The Ankle Bracelet

In 2016, the ankle bracelet had its day in the sun when the news outlet The Story NZ ran a feature on the supposedly “uncuttable” ankle bracelets developed by the Department of Corrections. Billy Weepu, cameraman and cousin of Wainuiomata powerhouse Piri Weepu, promptly sliced through a bracelet to the chagrin of Judith Collins.


That was three years ago. Ankle bracelets have faded from public view, but remain conspicuous, despite the efforts of those who wear them. Under socks, pants; almost hidden, but never quite enough. Recently, three of my friends were placed on Electronic Monitoring on Bail (EM bail) for separate offences. One of them, J, spoke to me about it. This is an account of his experience.


EM bail is a curfew system. Usually, the wearer can be away from a specified address between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The basic rationale behind EM is to desist the offender from further offending while on bail, and to reduce the risk of not turning up to court—all well and good. But debating the dubious merits of deterrence as a rationale in crime and punishment is beyond the scope of this article. We’re shifting our focus instead to the life of the person wearing the bracelet.


You see, EM bail is a bargain. The person concerned has high stakes but no chips. Probation gives the judge a report on the suitability of the proposed applicant, their address, and the occupants of the address. If granted, the “tracker” is placed on them, either in prison or in court. And then, for a seemingly arbitrary length of time deemed by the judge, the wearer is monitored. Constantly.


The wearer cannot explain that personal, work, or family circumstances make a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. curfew incredibly challenging and quite frankly unrealistic. They can’t tell a judge that they start work on site at 7:30 in Seatoun. A judge cannot listen to them explain that they live in Taita, and making it across the city in under half an hour is impossible. Nor that their son has rugby practice in Newtown that goes till 6:30, and getting him home across Wellington to Taita that quickly just isn’t an option.


The bracelet is non-negotiable, keeping them to a pre-ordained schedule for however many months. As with all strict deterrent measures in New Zealand, it’s not just the offender who is punished, but their entire family, too.


These monitors are bulky and hard to hide, protruding from socks and appearing momentarily above shoes as the wearer walks. They can be hard to get used to at first. Think about it: How often do you wear something around your ankles and feet, other than shoes and socks?


They prevent the wearer from recreational activities, like swimming. They rub and chafe against bare skin, especially during exercise. They can be humiliating, forcing the wearer to broadcast their missteps and shame to the world. If you’ve ever looked down and seen an ankle bracelet, chances are, the wearer noticed and felt embarrassed at the unwanted attention. A large portion of New Zealand’s incarcerated population experiences issues with their mental health—and fleeting gazes directed at the wearer’s ankle do nothing for peace of mind or self-esteem. Extra attention is highly unwelcome to the anxious.


For the few with a solid support network behind them, ankle bracelets can be a way to refocus; an intermediary behind a seemingly meaningless diversion and a life-ending prison sentence. For J, 7 a.m. till 7 p.m. is an arbitrary routine, but a routine nonetheless. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, and setting a time in which hands cannot be idle brought J back to a structured life. Remarkably, J was able to reflect constructively on his time under EM bail. He knew he’d done wrong. He saw EM as a way to fix his mistakes and return to normality. But J has a big support network: Friends who will check in on him, joke around and say they’re going for a beer, knowing he can’t come. But they’re checking on him nonetheless.


Amongst his family, only his mum and dad know. J feels as if he is the only one in his family getting in trouble, and would be ashamed if his wider family knew. Sure, your aunties and uncles might not outwardly say they think less of you, but those quick glances and disappointed looks are easily understood. He feels that it means he is not successful at life, feeding into his anxieties about letting people down, about not being enough.


Things could be much worse, granted. But an ankle bracelet as your best case scenario seems like cold comfort. When someone is on remand, their lawyer will make an application for EM bail on their behalf. That goes down the District Court hallway to the probation department, who writes a report on the suitability of the proposed bail address and its occupants, which is given to the judge at a bail hearing. Applications often fail at this step, due to the location of the house, or the character of the occupants. Your home address might be the best place for you to go… but what if your street has a high percentage of drug offences and auto theft? What if your family is two generations deep in Black Power? It can seem like you can never go home again, though home may be the only place you can receive the compassion and support that you really need to turn your life around—rather than a punitive sentence intended to satisfy our society’s burning desire for vengeance.


It can seem like it is all beyond the control of the offender. And that’s right—your autonomy is taken away, locked in a black box on your ankle for 18 months.


J is one of the lucky ones. At the time of publication, he will have resumed his regular, unmonitored life. But he had a home to go to, and people in that home who loved him enough to stick with him. Going home for some is going from the frying pan into the fire, back into the environment that made scared children into scared adults. Others still, cannot go home, for home isn’t a place they feel safe, or simply doesn’t exist.


A punished mistake long outlives the moment that decision was made. A criminal record and the stigma and stipulations surrounding it make it extremely difficult for the person to return to a normal life, or to find a job, or to reconcile with family and friends who feel hurt by a person’s actions.


Time can only tell how the boys will live beyond their time on EM bail. The Recidivism Index from the Department of Corrections Annual Report shows that 46.8 percent

of ex-prisoners released from prison in 2016/17 were reconvicted of an offence that resulted in a sentence administered by Corrections within 12 months of leaving prison.


As if we could take the promising future of a young man, and let one punished mistake rewrite what we want them to be and what they will become.



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