Unlocking Potential: Internet and Prisons

“For us to expect inmates will possess the skills necessary to survive in the free world, we'll have to come to the realization they'll have to use these things."
Douglas Smith III, Chief Information Officer, Florida Department of Corrections

Allowing prisoners secure and limited Internet access can provide a real opportunity for rehabilitation, potentially reducing recidivism.

Researchers and policymakers have largely forgotten prisoners when considering universal Internet access and the Digital Divide. These inmates are, by default, digitally excluded during their incarcerations, denying them access to a potentially potent tool for improving rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism.

In 2015, Ben Branstetter wrote a compelling article that makes a strong case for Internet access as a basic human right for prisoners. His main argument is connected to the revolving door phenomenon: more than two thirds of released prisoners end up back in prison within three years of their release. Allowing access to the Internet, Branstetter argues, would allow prisoners to gain important skills, increase their chances of finding a paid job after release, and in turn, reduce recidivism. His arguments are similar to those that Eli Lehrer made earlier in 2013. However, what is missing from the debate is actual research data about what prisoners and other interested parties think about Internet access in prisons.

Research on Internet in prisons—“It’s complicated”
In a small pilot study on Internet access (and lack thereof) in three British prisons, Yvonne Jewkes of the University of Brighton and I had the chance to talk with several groups of prisoners, prison guards, and senior prison staff, such as wardens and directors of prison services. These discussions convinced us that a fact-based and rational debate on the advantages and disadvantages of allowing inmates access to the Internet must include the views of all these interested parties.

Prison staff see the potential benefits of limited access for select prisoners. But security and safety, as well as concerns about public opinion, are the top reasons that staff are reluctant to introduce Internet-enabled technologies to prisons. Although it is feasible to censor and limit inmates’ Internet access -- allowing access to information, educational tools, and other useful areas while restricting social media and email use – some stakeholders were suspicious of allowing use of even the most basic technologies (such as simple MP3 players) which are not Internet-enabled. While senior prison staff were intrigued by the potential benefits of Internet-enabled technologies, they painted worst-case scenarios such as the fictional Internet of things nightmare story of a hacking-related prison break told by Stephen Helm in 2014.

While security concerns need to be addressed, the anecdotal and exaggerated nature of examples presented by prison staff was concerning, especially considering the extremely low number of criminals who get convicted for cybercrimes.(1) Although we need to be aware of potential abuses in unsecured and open Internet environments, fears of highly tech-savvy prisoners “hacking” a secured and censored version of the Internet are unsubstantiated. While it would probably be unwise to roll out Internet access for all prisoners regardless of the crimes they committed and the risks they pose, providing secure and safe access to low-risk prisoners would be relatively unproblematic.

Prisoners’ experiences
To our surprise, many of the older, long-term prisoners had resigned themselves to being excluded from the Internet, regarding it as one form of punishment that they deserved for committing their crimes. However, perhaps not as surprising, we also found inmates have positive and hopeful views about Internet access. In two of the prisons that we visited, low-security inmates had access to a newly-launched Skype service, which enabled them to have 15-minute video-chat sessions with their families. A few of them told us about the exhilarating experience of being able to see their children unwrap presents on Christmas Day, or reading them a bedtime story through Skype. While the feedback from prisoners was largely positive, issues with implementation – like the lack of privacy because of the proximity of both guards and fellow inmates -- led some prisoners to discontinue their use. Other prisoners told us about problems with taking educational courses, especially college-level courses, as most materials are now only available online, so they were missing access to crucial information and they were unable to submit assignments.

A group of prisoners in a so-called ‘working-out’ facility worked in the community, but lived in secured prison housing. This transition program was aimed at reintegrating long-term prisoners back into communities before their final release. Our research found that these prisoners felt like their lack of knowledge of digital technologies branded them as ex-prisoners and added to the stress of reintegrating into a society that has changed dramatically since their conviction. While these were long-term prisoners, even shorter incarceration periods can lead to a serious lack in skills due to discontinued use. Allowing prisoners secure and limited Internet access can increase or maintain these skills and provide a real opportunity for rehabilitation, potentially reducing recidivism.

“Safe” Internet in prisons is possible
What Branstetter and Lehrer—and now I—are suggesting is far from impossible and has, in fact, been implemented successfully in other countries. In Norway, for example, the penal system is designed specifically to rehabilitate prisoners and help them to become successful members of society rather than simply locking them away and punishing them for their crimes. Prisons in Norway allow inmates access to a system that is secured by a firewall but allows them to browse the Internet freely as “they must be able to access the internet … to help in their education and also so that they know they are still connected to the world.” Pilot programs in seven U.S. states allow prisoners to use tablets to connect with their families. In addition to building and maintaining social connections—which are important factors for rehabilitation and wellbeing—wider access to educational information, health information, job skills, and other resources help prisoners negotiate a successful reentry into society and avoid reoffending.

We need more data and more innovation
Policymakers lack real-world data on the benefits and pitfalls of allowing inmate Internet access. Much of the debate so far has been based on fear and speculation.

Access to prisons to conduct research and implement interventions is desperately needed, but extremely hard to come by. Only after we measure the outcomes of limited and secured Internet access to low-risk prisoners, will we be able to develop a framework for safe introduction of these technologies across prisons. As a society, we need to decide whether we want inmates to get a chance to succeed after their release, or do we take the risk that they offend again because they lack the skills workers now need. Providing inmates access to the digital technologies, skills and educational materials they need is crucial to their successful participation in society, and, accordingly, also a crucial part of rehabilitation.

Between 2006 and 2010, only 1,177 individuals were convicted and sentenced in the US for committing a cybercrime, whereas the prison population in the US remains at an all-time-high of more than 1.5 million individuals.
Dr. Bianca C. Reisdorf is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Quello Center, Michigan State University. Her research interests include digital inequalities and policies, internet use among vulnerable groups, and cross-national comparative studies that apply both qualitative and quantitative methods. Current research projects include a cross-national study of the history of rural broadband adoption and policies in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, and a study of digital divides in the US, with a focus on Michigan and Detroit. She was a Lecturer and Director of Distance Learning in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom before joining the Quello Center.

By Bibi Reisdorf.