I was there federal prison for 17 years. During that time, I’ve witnessed clamshell phones becoming iPhones, electric vehicles becoming ubiquitous, and AI starting to take over the world – albeit not quite as much terminator I (still) imagined it. However, I was largely unable to use this technology myself. I could only read about it in magazines and newspapers and watch the 21st century unfold with the methods of the 17th century. I didn’t hold a smart device in my hands until the US Department of Corrections started selling tablets last year.
That’s not too surprising. The Bureau of Prisons is resistant to change and sensitive to criticism. In 2008, outdated monitors in supermax prisons were eventually replaced with new televisions, but officers limited these to black-and-white picture modes to let the public know they hadn’t offered prisoners the luxury of color. A combination of the BOP’s hypersensitivity to public perception and pressure from Congress to keep inmates in a prison No-frills environment has left prisoners years, if not decades, behind the rest of society.
There are many other reasons why technology is hard to come by here. Federal prisons hold sex offenders, blackhat hackers and others whose access to the internet and the public must be closely monitored and controlled. Unfortunately, instead of paying for systems of technology that give incarcerated people crucial, albeit limited, access, the standard strategy of the BOP in general is to ensure total abstinence for all.
Federal prisoners, unlike those held in state prisons, can be incarcerated anywhere in the United States. I am currently in Florida, literally as far away from my family in the Pacific Northwest as possible while still remaining in the contiguous United States. It’s difficult to keep in touch with friends and family. The BOP introduced the above tablets to help prisoners stay close to their loved ones. But while video messaging is being rolled out at lower security levels, the inmates in my correctional facility haven’t seen any of these features — and if we get access, we’ll only be able to send and receive recorded messages, quite the opposite of real-time video chat systems used in some state prisons are in use.
It’s hard being separated from loved ones and the outside world in this way. But keeping prisoners away from technology is more detrimental to them and society at large than you might think. If I were released tomorrow and had only served two years, I would still be entering a world containing many new and unknown technologies such as generative AI. And I haven’t served two years. I have completed my 17th year and will probably not be released until I am 11 years old. Without access to technology and proper education, when I retire I will enter a society that is beyond recognition from the one I left. 20+ years in prison did nothing to prepare me for the seismic changes that have occurred. And that has to change.
To function in a world filled with fake news, political propaganda, and emotions disguised as fact, you need to be able to investigate and question the noise. This option is not readily available here. Most of our information comes from broadcast news. Exposure to partisan news sources without the ability to fact-check is a recipe for disaster. We do have access to magazines and newspapers, but they cost money, so most prisoners just opt for cable TV. Any group of people who have been exposed to a single news source for years without any other input is at risk of radicalization.
Additionally, limited access to technology prevents incarcerated people from being successful in their return to society. Education is the most effective means of reducing relapse. Just completing a GED significantly decreases a prisoner’s chances of returning to prison. When they complete a four-year degree, their chances of returning drop to less than 8 percent. In the event that they earn a college degree, chances are good effectively zero. And yet a university education is increasingly being forgotten; Most schools offering distance learning have switched to online-only formats that are generally inaccessible to prisoners.
The BOP has almost unlimited discretion in the management of its prisons. In principle, decisions of the Executive Committee cannot be reviewed in court. There are concrete steps the BOP can take to better prepare inmates for release — providing secure portals for online classes, implementing secure Wi-Fi systems and real-time video visits, and providing monitored internet access for the final six Months of imprisonment – this will dramatically increase a prisoner’s chance of reintegration into society.
I am educated which gives me an advantage when looking for a job. I may have grown up in prison, but I have a strong support network – not everyone here has that. Giving them – us – access to technology in a responsible way is vital if we want people to have a fair chance to get out and stay there.
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