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What it’s like to wear an electronic tag

BLOGS | 10th April 2024
Headshot of Jim Watson

Jim Watson is a research student at the University of Dundee and an associate lecturer in Criminal Justice at the University of the West of Scotland.

He served a short prison sentence 12 years ago and when he was released wore a tag for 15 days. He then worked in the criminal justice system before becoming an academic.

In part one of his guest blog he describes what it was like to wear a tag.

People often mistakenly think wearing an electronic monitor – or tag – is just like being in prison only in your house. Although it restricts your liberty it’s very different.

In a prison you are told when to eat, someone locks you in at night, you must move when you are told, and you cannot nip out to the shop for a treat if you feel like one. However, prison is often thought of as the only punishment available when you’ve broken the law. I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen a newspaper or social media headline about someone walking free from court only to read further down the article that they received a community payback order, a social work supervision order and a restriction of liberty order. This is by no means ‘walking free’ as this is still a punishment. But managing someone safely in the community rather than a short prison sentence means they’re less likely to reoffend.

Most people should be given community sentences when it’s safe to do so as they are far better for the people concerned, for society, and for the victims as they reduce the potential for further victims.

Being electronically monitored means that your liberty is restricted but it is really the mental impact that punishes you further. Your sense of agency which is your capacity to do things for yourself is returned but you become more time conscious. Everything is structured to ensure you are back home for a certain time. Leaving prison is already a stigmatising process but this is further enhanced by the thought everyone can see you are wearing an electronic tag and therefore must have done something bad. The device when worn is hardly noticeable under your trousers but that does not alter the way you think other people can view it. You imagine that there is a big neon sign pointing it out to people, which of course there is not but that does not stop the thinking. You also feel that the Government is monitoring you in real time – it is a nightmare that even George Orwell would struggle to get his head around. I know my tag was tied electronically to a box in my home but that did not stop me believing this was just a ruse and that somebody somewhere was watching me constantly. In many ways it is more of a punishment than prison.

The tag allowed for a restoration of family ties. I was able to return to the family home and start to live my life again with some sense of personal agency.

You are removed from the toxic stress that can be found in prisons which is one of the drawbacks of serving a custodial sentence. In prison you are constantly aware of where you are, of the risks that surround you and that at any moment things may explode – this is a stressful situation. It is not very conducive for reflective thought and trying to change your behaviours and embark upon your own desistance journey.

Short-term sentences serve a limited purpose. They are good for punishment and denunciation of individuals – the stigma and discrimination continue, but not very good for rehabilitation purposes. The prison service does not have the resources to adequately address offending behaviour for people serving short-term sentences. And a short-term sentence does not deter another short-term sentence as the revolving door of prison so clearly highlights. Given the nature of my crime, there was no public protection element that could be justified. A community disposal was recommended in my social enquiry report but the Sheriff thought otherwise.    

A man standing in a modern kitchen, there is an electronic tag attached to his ankle.

I was sentenced to a short-term prison sentence just over a decade ago for a crime which was not violence related and I didn’t pose a threat to anyone. I served eight months in HMP Low Moss and was released back to the community on licence under a Home Detention Curfew (HDC) where I had to wear a tag to serve the last part of my sentence at home. I was granted the licence by the Scottish Prison Service after being assessed as having the lowest security rating, somewhere to go home to in the community and presenting little or no risk of reoffending. 

There is often a mistaken view that the Home Detention Curfew, where you must be in your house for a set period – sometimes 12 hours a day – is just like prison but only in your house. This is a complete myth. The two systems, whilst having some similarity in that they restrict your liberty, are in fact poles apart.

On my day of liberation from prison I had to be back at my home for 4pm. This might be problematic if you do not stay close to your place of detention, or you do not have transport available. You then must allow the fitting agent into your home to set out the boundaries of the Remote Frequency (RF) tagging equipment. This involves you standing at the extreme points of your household whilst the tagging box is calibrated to mark out the boundaries. On my first calibration I could not go further than the door in my top hall.

You then get a tag or Personal Identity Device (PID) fitted to your ankle. I was naïve not to think this through – it really depends on your dominant sleeping side as to which leg is best. I got it fitted onto the “wrong” leg and my sleep was disrupted.

There are also a lot of myths surrounding these devices. Some think they are easy to slip off, ( they are most certainly not), you can bluff you way out of non-compliance (you cannot – the tagging officers in the call centre are all very experienced and can smell a bluff on the phone) and that the device can easily be removed (the strap is made of the tough material Kevlar – the only way to remove it is by deliberately cutting it, you will not accidentally knock it off).

You are then subject to the restrictions that appear on your licence. In the case of my HDC, I had to remain at my property for 12 hours, this was usually between the hours of 7pm and 7am, I must not commit any more offences, and must allow the tagging officers access if they require it.  The hours can be flexible, but you must do at least six hours as a minimum. Your curfew times can be worked around any other commitments that you may have, but you need to apply for this permission beforehand.

This might not seem a lot to some people, but the restrictions are a complete pain. Not being allowed out at certain times is very restrictive and it also something that is very easy to breach, unwittingly. Think about your own life and all the things that you do at night – cinema, theatre, parents’ evening at your child’s school – these are not possible on a tag. I was more than happy to see the tag removed.

Having worn the tag prompted me to get involved when there was a call out from the Scottish Government and G4S for electronic monitoring champions – people who have some experience and wanted to be advocates of the system to help increase their use and to reduce the need for people to be sent to prison. I was more than happy to participate in this process. Even now it is something that I would strongly advocate for instead of a short-term sentence. However, this will only be productive if other support and work is carried out alongside the tag. Support from justice social work or other third sector organisations would be beneficial to the tagged individual to work on their offending behaviour. Of equal importance is a change in societal attitudes – people have the capacity for change and less stigma is surely a good thing for everyone.

  • In part two of Jim’s blog he’ll be talking about how he thinks electronic monitoring can stop people reoffending.