Editor’s Picks

Computers Behind Bars Gains Support

By Cait Etherington
November 16, 2017

Between 1995 and 2015, the Internet expanded, social media platforms appeared, and mobile technologies proliferated. While most people in North America, including the very young and very old, experienced these changes firsthand, there is one notable exception: the millions of Americans serving time. As a result, our nation now faces a unique problem.

Without access to computers, tablets or cell phones, upon release, many people who are incarcerated don’t possess the basic skills needed to search for jobs and complete online application forms. Worse yet, even a job that may appear low-tech to many people on the outside (e.g., delivering groceries for a company like Instacart or Fresh Direct) can present a major challenge to someone who has never or rarely ever used a touch screen.  In addition, as more job training takes place online and takes a certain level of computer literacy for granted, former inmates are also at a notable disadvantage on the training front. This is why a growing number of prison reformers are calling for increased access to computers and mobile devices behind bars, but can this reform happen?

The Computer Behind Bars Policy Outside the United States

In many nations, especially those located in Europe, prisoners already have access to computers and online education. As reported in an earlier eLearningInside News article, outside the United States, many prison systems rely heavily on eLearning to ensure that prisoners can not only access a wider range of courses but also avoid having their studies disrupted when transferred to a new facility. Indeed, by 2008, 54 of Sweden’s 57 prisons were hooked up to a national network allowing students moving from one prison to another prison to continue seamlessly engaging in their courses.  But this does not mean that Swedish prisoners have open access to the Internet. Students are permitted to go online for educational reasons but their online activities are monitored by a tutor at all times.  Similar programs now exist throughout Europe with efforts driven by organizations such as HERO (Health and Educational Support for the Rehabilitation of Offenders), which is supported by the European Commission and has nine partners located in five European countries. The thinking behind HERO and similar organizations is that eLearning not only helps incarcerated individuals train behind bars but also ensures they stay on top of the latest developments in technology.

Computers Behind Bars in the United States

virtual reality in education and trainingAt present, there is virtually no way for U.S. inmates to access the Internet. Institutions may even punish inmates if their families post anything online on their behalf. Some organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF), have argued that lack of computer access impacts inmates ability to communicate with their families, attorneys, and potential services that might support them upon release (e.g., online degrees and courses). The EFF has even argued that the policy contravenes the May 2011 declaration by the United Nations that Internet access is now a fundamental human right.

Aaron Mackay and David Maass, who have been leading the EFF campaign, outlined in a 2016 open letter, that even when U.S. prisons do offer limited access to the Internet, the conditions under which access is offered is frequently problematic: “These new technologies often do not result in stronger lines of communication at all. Some prison officials use the technology to justify restricting in-person visitation or traditional mail. Many communications services are offered under unfair terms and with artificially inflated fees that are only possible because the services operate monopolies at each prison or jail.”

Computers Behind Bars and Recidivism

According to a National Institute of Justice study that tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005, within three years of release, 67.8% released prisoners were rearrested within five years of release, 76.6% of released prisoners were rearrested; and of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half were arrested by the end of the first year living outside the prison system. What accounts for the high rates of recidivism? What’s clear is that job skills play a factor.

As Joan Petersilia of the Stanford Law School observes, “Rehabilitation programs reduce recidivism if they incorporate proven principles and are targeted to specific offenders. Research demonstrates that offenders who earn a high school equivalency diploma while behind bars are more likely to get jobs after release. Those who receive vocational skills training are more likely to get jobs and higher wages after release.” Given that prisoners are already banned from pursuing many jobs in growth industry (e.g., education), tech is an obvious growth industry that could be used to help get former prisoners into steady jobs, but this can only happen if access to computers behind bars opens up.

As clearly stated in a 2013 study by the Prison Reform Trust, “Traditionally, giving prisoners access to ICT and online resources has been seen as a potentia risk to security. While the possibility of misuse must certainly be managed, the essential role of ICT in the community mean that not allowing prisoners to access ICT increases the risks of prisoners not successfully resettling after release and reoffending. In the interests of improving resettlement outcomes and reducing the risk of reoffending, prisons urgently need to focus on how security risks can be managed in a more proportionate way so that ICT can be an effective tool for resettlement.”