Digital Prisons

For some prisoners, being released from prison can be described as “going from the old ages to Star Wars.” One major issue that recently released prisoners have had to deal with now more than ever before is understanding how to adapt to life in a society dominated by rapid technological changes. An oft overlooked solution with strong supporting evidence involves increasing digital literacy and teaching inmates how to use certain technologies to mitigate the shock of life outside prisons and teach prisoners different educational and life skills. Giving prisoners access to technology and increased educational resources while they serve their sentences has the potential to lower recidivism rates and improve job prospects after they are released. A balanced solution to increase the use of technology in prisons would have the triple effect of improving digital literacy, education levels, and job prospects for prisoners upon release.

Reducing recidivism is critical for any criminal justice system if the goal is to prevent crime rather than simply instituting stopgap measures. Being able to prevent future crime rather than simply punish those who have already committed crimes makes society safer and reduces future costs that will need to be invested in the prison system. Factors that significantly contribute to recidivism usually involve the ability of ex-convicts to attain meaningful employment that would provide them with stable financial situations and reduce the incentive to return to the illegal economy. Yet, these days who hasn’t used Craigslist to find something or done a quick Google search to find a job application? Trawling through the classifieds section of a newspaper no longer suffices when so much crucial information is available exclusively online. Remaining competitive in today’s society requires people to be digitally literate and capable of finding job listings and housing offers on the Internet—something that inmates are unable to do from within the confined walls of a prison. Factors that would substantially help criminals adapt to a new role in a changed society include increasing educational attainment and introducing the ability to use the Internet to look for jobs, affordable housing, and community support. These goals are all well within reach if prisons were to undertake a major initiative to introduce technology in prisons to improve digital literacy and increase the education levels of inmates directly through online modules and internet-capable devices that could be used to provide inmates with a more concrete understanding of how the Internet can be used for real-world purposes. Though the evidence of real-world use of digital literacy in prisons is limited, its potential success has been documented by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. After two semesters of using secured seven-inch tablets in correctional education classrooms to access community college coursework, “the program saw a more than 80 percent completion rate, with students having higher confidence in digital literacy.” Though this is just one instance, there is a vast amount of data that supports the potential of such a program; by providing technology to inmates, prisons can increase prisoners’ readiness for the world outside.

Though digital literacy offers its own advantages, using technology and portable devices in prison to offer new educational programs would also greatly ease the transition back to normalcy for ex-convicts. Increasing educational opportunities would provide an important pathway for criminals who seek ways to live stable lives after being released from prison. Researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice found in 2004 that roughly 37 percent of prisoners in state prisons had less than a high school diploma, so a moderate increase in skills could mean a great deal. But the question is just how much could education programs in prisons help inmates? The RAND Corporation found, using 30 years’ worth of data, that inmates who enrolled in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to reoffend and end up back in jail. However, the most relevant piece of information was the finding that “Inmates exposed to computer-assisted instruction learned slightly more in reading and substantially more in math in the same amount of instructional time.” This finding is key to the idea that online learning provides an intangible opportunity that traditional learning programs would not be able to tap into. It’s possible this happens because online programs allow “corrections staff to collect better data on student progress and monitor their behavior. Additionally, digital learning might benefit offenders who have struggled in the past with traditional in-person teaching methods due to behavioral issues.”  Moreover, simply the use of technology for online learning provides inmates with an opportunity to use the Internet and build the fundamental skills for navigating the Internet and understanding how to find resources.

Critics of these initiatives have cause for concern, such as issues with maintaining security and the possible effectiveness of such a plan. One major security concern involves whether or not inmates should be allowed open access to the Internet for certain obvious reasons, but there are ways to manage this risk. A prison could either allow Internet access only to certain websites or provide inmates with an archived (offline) version of the Internet for the purpose of allowing inmates to learn how to use technology and interact with some form of the Internet. According a survey by the Department of Education, only 38 percent of correctional education programs already offer access to an archived version of the Internet, but this means that this is a viable solution that manages security risks and would be a good option for other correctional education programs.

In regards to the issue of how effective these technology initiatives could be, there are two key questions that need to be answered: what societal barriers would exist for any plan to increase education levels and digital literacy in prisons, and how can society be convinced of the worthiness of the investment?

The arguably more interesting and complex question to address is the potential effectiveness these digital literacy initiatives would have for prisoners once they are released. One of the biggest obstacles that prisoners face upon leaving prison is unemployment, largely due to a small box on most job applications that requires applicants to indicate whether or not he or she has a criminal record. This would also be a barrier to the effectiveness of any technology initiative in prisons, as the success of the program would be tied very closely to the ability of ex-convicts to become employed. A study conducted by Devah Pager of Northwestern University determined that checking off the box indicating a criminal record decreases an applicant’s chance of receiving a call back for an interview by more than half for minorities and by roughly half for whites.

Any effort to implement online educational programs and increase digital literacy in prisons would have a legitimate question to answer: what can society do to best tap into these benefits? If society can find a way to ease the employment process for ex-convicts, it would further justify reasons to increase technology usage in prisons as we could end up with a better educated and more skilled population of ex-convicts that could actually utilize the real opportunities available to them. As President Obama so aptly stated, the federal government “should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications.” Following orders from the White House, federal agencies have reacted by removing the box from their job applications. The Center for Public Safety Initiatives Rochester Institute of Technology reasons that one of the most important reasons to ban the box is that it allows potential employers to get a better picture of an applicant’s criminal history: “If criminal history is discussed in interviews, applicants have the opportunity to challenge stereotypes and explain the circumstances around their convictions.” So though it may seem that the ban the box and digital literacy initiatives are quite distinct, they are actually tied together more closely than people believe. For the benefits of educational and digital literacy initiatives in prisons to come into fruition, ex-convicts must be allowed the opportunity to display what they have learned so that they have a reasonable chance of being considered for a job before an employer is made aware of a criminal record.

The second question that needs to be addressed is why such an investment would be reasonable for society. For this question there is a simple answer: recidivism. The VERA Institute of Justice tried to calculate the cost of state prisons in 40 states in the U.S. and found that the total cost to taxpayers in the 40 states studied was about $39 billion. For taxpayers, the prison system is already a costly investment of sorts. People pay the government to rehabilitate and punish criminals in hopes that it keeps society safer in the future. But how effective is the current system? The Pew Center on the States reports “more than four in ten offenders nationwide return to state prison within three years of their release despite a massive increase in state spending on prisons.” The study also finds that “if 10 states alone reduced their recidivism rates by 10 percent, it would save more than $470 million in a single year.” At the end of the day, recidivism is costly to society. A high recidivism rate requires our prisons to house people who have already spent time inside in addition to felons being sent to prison for the first time. If the prison system really were an investment in society’s safety, then perhaps it would be reasonable to implement programs that would push states closer to a lower recidivism rate. Offering ex-convicts a path toward reintegration with society would be able to do just that. The use of technology in prisons for the purpose of education and instruction on how to search for jobs and housing would pave a path to a lawful lifestyle for any ex-criminal looking for one. Providing technology to prisons for correctional education programs would give prisons a reusable resource to improve how ex-convicts fare in society.

Technology initiatives to assist prisoners have the potential to revolutionize the prison system and how we try to rehabilitate prisoners. If society truly values a criminal justice system centered on rehabilitation, these initiatives can provide prisoners with the tools to live lawful lives after being released. Moreover, digital literacy programs in prisons have the potential to save costs for taxpayers, but the biggest gains come if done in conjunction with other measures. The effectiveness of any initiative to improve education and digital literacy in prisons is tied heavily to ex-prisoners being hired, but achieving this is highly dependent on the bias that ex-convicts face with most employment applications. If lawmakers are able to put together a comprehensive way of reforming the prison system involving digital literacy, online education modules, and removing the box on job applications, they could make significant progress in reducing recidivism and making society safer.

Featured image source: Dave Granlund