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Is house arrest such a bad punishment?

Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo is serving the final months of a five-year federal prison sentence under home confinement, cooling his heels at his 33-room Victorian mansion in Spring Garden.

Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo is serving the final months of a five-year federal prison sentence under home confinement, cooling his heels at his 33-room Victorian mansion in Spring Garden.

Joan Orie Melvin, an ex-Supreme Court justice in Pennsylvania, is confined to her suburban Pittsburgh home for three years of house arrest for illegally using state workers for court campaigns. She's allowed to leave only for church and a soup kitchen.

And thousands of lesser-known defendants, mostly in drunken-driving cases, are routinely sent home to do their time.

Across the nation, as building prisons and filling them has become a costly drain on government budgets at all levels, home confinement is easing jail overcrowding and reducing the demand for new cells. And it also is a novel punishment for nonviolent offenders.

"It gives judges another tool in the tool belt - versatility," said Kevin Courtright, a professor at Edinboro University near Erie, who teaches criminal justice and has studied the use of home confinement.

But it's hardly a new concept. The notion of confining someone to his home is said to date back to the days of St. Paul the Apostle, who reportedly spent two years under house arrest in Rome for proselytizing about Christianity. Galileo, too, was confined at his home - for daring to suggest that the Earth revolved around the sun.

But in more modern times, even as such well-known figures as Lindsay Lohan, Bernie Madoff, and Martha Stewart all have been confined to their homes after getting into trouble with the law, it has become a routine criminal sanction for regular folks, too.

How difficult could it be to endure the kind of downtime that house arrest would require? It could, after all, be a chance to clean out closets, catch up on Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad, maybe even just read a book.

Or could it be strangely confining?

Meili Cady, an aspiring actress who spent a year confined to her 580-square-foot L.A. apartment after pleading guilty in a federal drug case and serving 30 days in prison, chronicled the experience on her "house arrest girl" blog (, describing the experience as fraught with challenges, monotony, and loneliness.

She wrote that she was "free yet confined" and in a state of "compromised freedom" as she counted down the days until the clunky black ankle device could come off.

"Every day that I'm able to leave the confines of my apartment, I think about freedom, not because I'm experiencing it, but because I'm observing it all around me," she wrote after just a few months at home.

Cady wrote that it could be stressful to comply with a slew of regulations - but that home confinement had a big advantage: "At least I'm not in prison."

Peggy Conway, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, estimated that as of late 2012, 150,000 to 165,000 people across the nation were being electronically monitored, mostly at their homes, by courts or corrections officials.

As technology improves, the number is bound to increase.

The sanction can be imposed before trial, as it was in the case of Madoff, or toward the end of a prison sentence as a way to help inmates transition back into their community. Fumo, for example, is at home serving the final six months of his prison sentence for using state workers for political and personal errands, ripping off two nonprofits, and trying to cover it up.

Orie Melvin, who resigned from the Supreme Court after she was found guilty of theft of services and misapplication of government property, was sentenced to three years of house arrest and directed to send handwritten apologies on photos of herself in handcuffs to every judge in the state.

She and her lawyer declined to discuss how she was faring on house arrest.

Usually, there are strict rules.

Bucks County, for example, has a 24-page guide to house arrest, advising participants that they must have a landline to receive voice-recognition calls that will confirm they are at home and that they should be prepared for their homes to be searched without notice.

House-arrest "inmates" are allowed to leave their homes for work, and for up to three hours a week, but they are not permitted to have social gatherings. No alcohol is permitted either, even in mouthwash or Dijon mustard. The Bucks County guide makes it clear that failure to pass an alcohol or drug test is considered a big N-O - and a violation means the end of house arrest and a trip to jail.

Fumo, meanwhile, is working as a $10-an-hour aide at the office of his lawyer, Dennis J. Cogan. Fumo is required to check in regularly with corrections officials and must submit to routine urine tests for alcohol or drugs. He's also assisting on his continuing legal battles. He can have visitors at home, but a party he planned last month was canceled after corrections officials objected.

Cogan declined to discuss how the once-powerful Philadelphia Democrat was doing as he inched closer to Feb. 2, the end of his confinement.

"It's pretty clear that he's been through hell," said Cogan, "and he has handled his difficulties with courage and with dignity."

In a telephone interview last week, Cady said her life has taken a good turn. She met a TV producer at the restaurant where she worked during her year of house arrest, and he put her in touch with an agent. Now, she has a book contract and has been retained as a consultant for a movie planned about her case.

"It's crazy," said Cady, now 27, as she discussed the positive changes in her life.

But it would be hard to beat the utter joy in her voice on the day in November when her sentence was ended, and she received her probation officer's permission to grab a screwdriver and remove the bracelet - an experience she documented on a video.

"Oh my God!" she exclaimed. "I'm free!"

Emilie Lounsberry is a former Inquirer staff writer who teaches journalism at the College of New Jersey