Op-Ed: Lack of access to technology is another injustice of mass incarceration


On March 13, 2020, I received a call from the local juvenile hall canceling my Malcolm X Poetry and Politics class. It was only a few days into the COVID-19 lockdown that canceled all prison visits. My frustration kept me awake that night. The incarcerated students looked forward to attending the weekly class we offered through the UCLA Prison Education Program, not to mention seeing their parents and loved ones.

For weeks, I was unable to communicate with my students, and the detention center staff told me that tensions were rising in the facility. In the end, the guards accepted video conferencing as a better alternative than no visit at all. Family visits have been reinstated via video and our college program has resumed with Microsoft Teams.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the world, further forcing daily life to take place online. For those of us working to dismantle the prison industrial complex, this has laid bare the urgent need to make technology more accessible to those behind bars.

Technologies used daily by millions across the country have long been denied to those incarcerated. In the classes I teach in California county, state, and federal prisons, incarcerated students were allowed to use computers once or twice a week to type research papers and assignments, but unable to access the Internet for further research or work.

When prisons provide prisoners with technology, it is often outdated and poorly maintained. While teaching, conducting, and conducting workshops at correctional facilities in half of the 50 states, I’ve seen countless computers running operating systems that don’t support Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Microsoft Teams. other apps that have proliferated during the pandemic.

More alarmingly, attempts to modernize this technology in recent years have been financially exploitative. A few years ago, JPay, a subsidiary of prison communications company Securus Technologies, offered tablets to New York prisons for free, but charged for services such as email, e-books, music and games. The company expected a net profit for the program of $8.8 million by August 2022.

Companies such as Securus and the private prison telecommunications contractor GTL, which allegedly control about 50% telecommunications contracts in prisons, charged so exorbitantly for phone calls that last year the Federal Communications Commission price caps for interstate calls at 12 cents per minute, or 14 cents in larger installations. (For context, the minimum prison hourly wage for a job at Federal Prison Industries is 12 cents.) GTL is the company that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has contracted to expand access to tablets and computer terminalsand critics say the rollout to state prisons has been worrying slow.

Privacy issues are also at stake. Prison phone calls are regularly monitored, with some prisons across the country use artificial intelligence to monitor bulk calls. New technologies could easily be used to increase surveillance of incarcerated people and those with whom they communicate outside. This includes family, friends and loved ones in communities that are already overly policed ​​and incarcerated. GTL obtained a patent last year for a virtual reality program to connect incarcerated people with their loved ones. The patent application includes a “monitoring system” that “continuously monitors the visual information of the virtual reality session”.

But banning technology from prisons can have serious long-term consequences. Colleges are increasingly requiring students to have laptops, especially as the pandemic has necessitated and normalized online learning. For those incarcerated, pursuing post-secondary education is essential to finding work and building a new life after returning home. Education can reduce the recidivism rate of about 43%. The higher the degree obtained, the more recidivism decreases: 14% for an associate degree, 5.6% for a bachelor’s degree and 0% for a master’s degree.

Given the dire need for technology in prisons, why not have state and federal education budgets cover the cost of laptops for more than 2 million people incarcerated in the USA? Why not ask foundations to help defray costs at city jails and county juvenile centers?

Organizations already working in prisons are equipped to facilitate distribution, if they are sufficiently funded to do so. By owning the technology, rather than borrowing it while behind bars, incarcerated people will leave prison with urgent technological access after returning home. This would be a relatively inexpensive investment that would not waste taxpayers’ money generating profits for private entrepreneurs. A laptop, which averages less than $1,000costs less than 1% of the more than $100,000 needed to imprison someone in California for a year.

Corrections should rely on the leadership of grassroots organizations, such as A New Way of Life Reentry Project in Los Angeles and Community Capacity Development in New York, to distribute these devices. Think tanks organized by such groups and including incarcerated students can guide this investment in Indigenous, Black and Latino communities, women and working class people – those who for generations have endured the trauma of incarceration. massive.

There’s no reason prison education can’t include cutting-edge technology. The UK’s National Prison Radio broadcasts on 80,000 people incarcerated professional studios at Brixton Prison. While teaching at Oxford University, I used Skype to connect UK art students with people incarcerated in DC Jail for a hip-hop theater and spoken word poetry workshop. In New York and California, I worked with filmmakers Jonathan Deme and Scott Budnick to produce TED talks featuring people incarcerated in Sing Sing and Ironwood prisons, honing their public speaking skills and sharing their stories online with millions of people.

Access to technological tools and education programs will help those behind bars learn the skills needed to survive in a 21st century economy. This is a crucial step towards preparing and empowering incarcerated people for successful reintegration into the community, reducing recidivism and dismantling the prison industrial complex.

Bryonn Bain, author of “Rebel Speak: A Justice Movement Mixtape” and award-winning theater production “Lyrics From Lockdown” is an artist, teacher, and founding director of the Prison Education Program at UCLA.

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