Bridging the ‘Digital Moat’ Between Prison and the Outside

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The first challenge faced by individuals leaving prison is often the hardest: Navigating the fast-moving changes in technology that occurred while they were inside.

Training in digital literacy should be a critical element in prison rehabilitation, education and counselling, but its potential is undercut by the “profiteering” of tech companies―making it more difficult for returning citizens to successfully reintegrate civilian society and increasing the likelihood of recidivism, according to two advocates.

“Correctional facilities across the country often receive tablets from companies like GTL and JPay free of charge to prisons and American taxpayers,” write Paolo Arguelles and Isabelle Ortiz-Luis, co-founders of Bridges for Digital Literacy, a non-profit organization dedicated to bridging the digital divide.

“While seemingly a charitable gesture, this is actually a predatory pricing tactic used to gain market share. Once companies have distributed tablets, often in exchange for an exclusive contracting deal with the facility, they charge exorbitant prices for inmates to use the devices, pricing ebooks, games, videos, music, and messaging services well above their normal fair market price.”

That puts incarcerated populations at a serious advantage when they try to cross the “digital moat:” that separate prisons from the wired world of high tech.

The authors cited a 2017 study concluding that jobs relying heavily on digital skills increased more than four times from 2002 to 2016.

The control by tech companies of digital tools in prison began with their monopoly of prison communications, the authors wrote.

Monopolies like JPay and GTL have gouged families with high prices and fees for prison phone calls. More recently, the tactics have shifted to tablet programs. The authors say though these tablets are given free to prisoners and taxpayers, anything used on them is charged at an extremely high price to the prisoner.

JPay charges $10 for 30 minutes and $1 for one 30-second “videogram” or video chats.

“By charging inmates and their families excessive fees to stay connected, companies exacerbate the issues their tablet program claims to help solve, disproportionately affecting lower-income families who may not be able to afford the costs of keeping touch with their loved one,” the authors wrote.

To bypass the monopolies, the authors suggested fostering competition by competitive bidding, which would allows public agencies to partner with private entities while maintaining transparency and reducing spending..

One solution, the authors write, may take the form of a consumer review board that advocates on behalf of inmates and their families, instead of the elite companies taking from them. They would also align market incentives with long-term policy goals.

Once an organization is able to take over, the authors give suggestions on how tablet administration should be done in prisons. Technology should be used only to a certain extent, the authors write.

“The responsible digitization of essential inmate services stems from the critical distinction of technology as a means to an end rather than an end in itself,” the authors wrote.

This means not taking away things like passionate teachers, or in-person lawyer consultations, or even connected relationships with mentors instead of just the device.

The authors also suggested collaborating with researchers who would be able to inform them on public policy decisions.

“Digital literacy programs give returning citizens the tools to break vicious, intergenerational cycles that disproportionately affect low-income families and communities of color, ” the authors wrote.

“Returning citizens can become positive change agents for their own communities, promoting upward mobility through technology.”

The United States records some of the highest rates of recidivism in the world. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44 percent of criminals released return before the first year out of prison.

A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics following 400,000 state prisoners found that since release, more than half were rearrested within two years, and 83 percent within nine years.

Additional Readings:

 How the Fight for Prison ‘Phone Justice’ Scored a Major Victory The Crime Report, April 23, 2019

 College-Level Education for Prisoners is the ‘Fourth Pillar’ of Reentry: Study, The Crime Report, May 24, 2019

This summary was prepared by Justice Reporting Intern Anna Wilder.

2 thoughts on “Bridging the ‘Digital Moat’ Between Prison and the Outside

  1. My incarcerated friend (Florida) got a free tablet from JPay. He emails everyday. It has been 112 hours since I heard from him—5 plus days. And JPay wants to digitize USPS mail. They are incompetent

  2. This is quite an interesting post that prisoners who use digital stuff may find helpful. Working as a lawyer in Brisbane or even in the USA is not an easy thing, you need to know about different things. You never know what can come up.

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