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How quarantine makes the case for house arrest as an alternative to prison

Quarantine Incarceration

As many of you are sheltering in place and going stir crazy, you might be thinking that this quarantine is akin to imprisonment, or at least to house arrest. As someone who experienced both of those earlier in my life (and am now getting my law degree), let me set the record straight:

This quarantine is nothing like the incarceration that you would experience while inside a correctional facility such as jail or prison.

However, it is analogous to a mild form of house arrest. As such, now might be the best chance we have as citizens to evaluate whether we consider house arrest a viable and just alternative punishment to warehousing people inside overcrowded and inhumane facilities. I know that I do. 

First, my credentials. 

I was imprisoned in a correctional facility for second-degree armed robbery in my late teens, and then I spent 100 days on house arrest with an ankle monitor. With house arrest, I was allowed to leave my house once a week for 2 hours to do my necessities, which included things such as grocery shopping, getting a haircut, etc.

My designated day was Sunday between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon. For those 2 hours of “freedom” each week, I had to jump through a variety of hoops. I had to get every single destination pre-approved, including the route I planned to get there and who I would meet.  This approval had to be done at the beginning of the month, was not guaranteed, and was locked in for the entire month.

Unlike some TV drama depictions, my ankle monitor was not distance-sensitive to a box in the house, giving me 50 feet or so of imaginary range of motion. Instead, it was connected to a satellite to monitor me and my movements at all times—which in a way can be more intimidating because I knew that was always being tracked and monitored. 

Because of its design, I had to charge my ankle monitor every day for 2 hours a day. The length of my charging cord was only 1 foot. So, for 2 hours every day, I had to make sure that my ankle was tethered no further than 1 foot away from the wall—locking me in place essentially for the duration.

If you are thinking, why not just do it in your sleep? The answer is it was my responsibility to make sure that it was charging, and if I was sleeping, I would run the risk of unplugging it in my sleep causing my battery to die, resulting in police coming to re-arrest me on new charges and take me off to jail again.  

While on house arrest, life truly passed me by. It did not matter what was going on in my life externally, be it my birthday, someone else’s, a family barbecue, or a funeral. If the event didn’t land on Sunday between the hours of 10 and noon, or if my destination, people at the destination, and route to the destination were not pre-approved, I was not allowed to go. For example: I tried to get my day moved from Sunday to a Friday to attend the funeral of my uncle, who took me camping and dressed up as Santa for us kids. It did not work out well, and I ended up not going. I never got to say goodbye.

All of that was done to make sure that I knew just because I was on house arrest didn’t mean that I was free. I was still an inmate—I just happened to be an inmate in my own home.

However, house arrest wasn’t all bad—especially considering the alternative. I did get some positives out of house arrest that I would have never had gotten while incarcerated. I chose to use my time on house arrest as productively as possible—I had a plethora of books that I had set out to read, I was going to get healthy, and I was going to learn a trade. My biggest accomplishment was teaching myself to cook. I am proud to say that I have perfected the hamburger. It took a lot of bad experiments and culinary catastrophes, but now, I got it. This skill has stayed with me to this day. I love to use  it as a way to connect and maintain a connection with others—including getting through this quarantine. 

I went on to get three associate’s degrees from Ohlone Junior College, become valedictorian of my class at the University of San Francisco, where I earned a bachelor’s degree, and accepted at Santa Clara University School of Law

Some would say I got better than I deserved, given my crimes. And while they are entitled to that view, I hope some are now realizing that house arrest could be a solution to the well-known crisis of over-incarceration and recidivism  in America. Or that perhaps it might lead you to view actual imprisonment—and who truly deserves that level of punishment—differently. 

For instance, as you are sheltering in place, you might be annoyed by your family members or roommates by now, which is understandable. Now imagine if you had to share living spaces with complete strangers, the food is garbage, you lose all autonomy, you have zero privacy, you can’t see or even talk to your loved ones or family any time in the near future.  Inmates suffer that, while also dealing with isolation, overcrowding, poor medical attention, poor sanitary conditions, strain on mental health while inside, mental health issues that linger post release causing PTSD, and more.

And if this is supposed to rehabilitate as opposed to just mercilessly punish, that is not happening.  In California, that average overall recidivism rate is above 50 percent, with some demographics as high as 73.5 percent.

I hope in light of this quarantine—and everyone experiencing a mild form of house arrest—more people will see the validity of house arrest as a real alternative to incarceration. As in my case, this solution can alleviate not just the financial burden of mass incarceration, it can also benefit the inmate, the inmate’s family, and society as a whole. 

Antonio Reza Antonio Reza is a first year law student at Santa Clara University School of Law, the first student president and an executive board member of the National Justice Impacted Bar Association and an executive board member of the California System Involved Bar Association. He is external vice president of the La Raza Law Student Association and vice president of external affairs for the Student Bar Association.