Frozen in Time

Cryosleep Pods from the Alien Franchise

As any science fiction fan can tell you, there is something infinitely fascinating about the concept of cryosleep. From Ripley to Jim Preston, America’s obsession with the cinema of space has made cryosleep, most frequently depicted as a deliberately induced state of unconsciousness for the purposes of long-term space travel, a familiar trope for decades. The cryo-sleeper awakens after months or even years spent in a self-contained limbo, often coming to the dramatic realization that the world has gone on without them.

In America, roughly 2.3 million people in jails and prison across the country are effectively in a state of cryosleep when it comes to technology. Recent studies demonstrate a shocking lack of digital literacy among incarcerated Americans – in one particularly telling statistic, a RAND survey found that just 22% of people in prisons have ever used a computer. Formerly incarcerated adults’ anecdotes about re-entering society are rife with stories of complete technological overload, with newly released people describing the phenomenon as everything from feeling “totally lost” to “going from the old ages to Star Wars.”

Given that 47 states ban Internet access in their respective correctional facilities, those who entered the prison system before the dawn of smartphones, social media, and even desktop computers will most likely never be exposed to modern technology until the day that their sentences end. Beyond debates about inmates’ right to free speech and the role of the internet in exposing potential abuses behind the barbed wire, the lack of access to technology in prisons and jails functions as another barrier to breaking the cycle of recidivism.

Just over two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years; within five years, the rate of rearrest increases to more than 75%. Chief among the factors that contribute to recidivism is the high rate of unemployment among formerly incarcerated people. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that members of this population face an unemployment rate nearly five times higher than that of the general population. With no training in or, in many cases, even awareness of, basic computing skills, those released from prison are significantly disadvantaged both in the job search process and in the job market more broadly. As more and more industries require a baseline of technological ability to participate even at the entry level, those re-entering society after serving time find themselves further removed from the prospect of employment.  

While critics voice valid concerns about security and the safety of victims and witnesses, a number of innovative approaches to inmate technology access are emerging, particularly in the education technology space. Take, for example, the Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning, or RACHEL. The RACHEL, marketed as “the best of the web for people without internet” by non-profit technology developer World Possible, is a portable offline server that houses a curated library of content from otherwise online content providers. Inmates enrolled in approved prison education programs can access a wide variety of digital resources through World Possible’s partners, including College Board College-Level Examination Programs, textbooks and STEM source articles, interactive educational simulations from the University of Colorado and MIT, and a secure version of Wikipedia. Although it was originally designed for use in developing nations, the RACHEL is now used in prisons in New York, California, Wisconsin, and 11 other states.

“If we prepare inmates, and I prefer the term ‘students,’ for re-entry by equipping them with appropriate digital skills, access to education, and career content, we are going to reduce recidivism and unlock the potential that is in each of these returning citizens.”

Frank Martin, Leader of World Possible’s U.S. Justice Program

A handful of similarly-minded organizations have also found ways to provide the informational benefits of the Internet without the associated contact and access risks that often prevent correctional facilities from adopting inmate-targeted technology. Edovo, a social enterprise startup based out of Chicago, produces damage-resistant tablets for prison libraries and educational centers that “deliver free access to educational programming and low-cost communication services.” Like the RACHEL, Edovo does not connect to the public internet, relying instead on private internet hotspots within facilities and secured software. In addition to providing GED educational materials and ESL content in gamified formats, Edovo tablets can also be used by facility administrators to digitize commissary, law library, and prison orientation processes

As NSENA VR has realized, finding ways around Internet bans is not the only avenue for increasing inmates’ digital literacy. In Colorado, the Fremont Correctional Facility is experimenting with the use of NSENA’s virtual reality technology to prepare long-term inmates for life on the outside in the hopes of facilitating an early release. The program includes both observational and interactive modules that can be tailored to the needs of a specific prison population. The Fremont pilot participants, all of whom were sentenced to several decades or life in prison while still in their teens, are immersed in real-life scenarios involving everything from using self-checkout lanes and digital washing machines to money management and conflict de-escalation.

Technology is often viewed as a tool for social mobility, and this is perhaps no truer than in the context of the criminal justice system. For-profit, non-profit, and government organizations have a real opportunity to bring incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults into the folds of modern society by designing technologies with the built and cultural environments of prisons in mind. When we give these individuals the tools they need to survive and thrive outside of the context of incarceration, we acknowledge their ability to positively contribute to our communities and move one step closer to narrowing the digital divide.

11 comments

  1. Powerful. I had no idea the statistics on incarcerations and how many prisoners are not technologically savvy. This is a huge move for government organizations to have a positive impact on the future of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults. Hopefully, these programs will decrease the number of incarcerations and help these people do more with their lives and contribute to the welfare of society positively instead of negatively.

  2. dilillomelissa · ·

    First of all, thanks for the awesome topic. The video really shows the reactions and emotions of the prisoners when viewing this new technology for the first time. I can’t imagine never being in a setting where I didn’t know how to check-out my groceries or seeing an iPhone for the first time after they’ve been out for years prior. Because the statistics are so high for released prisoners going back to prision after a few years, this is such a powerful way to help decrease that stat and give people a better chance of survival. This reminds me of how you would nurture an animal in captivity for instance, before setting them back free in the wild. If you don’t give them any real life experiences, they just won’t survive. It’s great to hear that this type of technology is used to benefit those who otherwise have no means of understanding what is out there.

  3. Actually, this is a really interesting angle that I haven’t seen before (that’s hard to do). Nice work!

  4. This is an awesome topic and something that I think is easily overlooked. We are always worried about making our parents, grandparents and other generation a tech savvy, but we a missing a huge population. I think the investments made by states and some correction facilities is a step in the right direction, in doing what they should be doing rehabilitating inmates.

  5. Loved this video, thanks for sharing! This is a side of technology that we often talk about for third world countries where it can be hard to adapt those new technologies to certain areas, but i’ve never thought about the technology deficit of prisoners. Very interesting application of VR technology as well, that is a new one that I think has the potential to be involved in a lot of meaningful projects like this one.

  6. This is really interesting and something that’s often overlooked. So much of what we read is how technology is hindering our society, and it’s refreshing to see a way in which it can be used for positive social change. It reminds me of a comment from a TED Talk we watched last week where Margaret Gould Stewart pointed out that the majority of the world does not consume technology through iPhones or Androids, but through flip phones that we used 10+ years ago. It’s easy to forget that technology is a privilege when it has become so ingrained in our everyday lives.

  7. I absolutely loved this post. It sheds a light on a pressing issue that I assume many people have never thought about, but should certainly be aware of nonetheless. This reminds me of an episode of Orange is the New Black, where an inmate is released and finds herself completely lost shortly after. She has no sense of life in the outside world, and lacks the skills and resources to get back on her feet and build a life of her own. With no sense of direction, she willingly chooses to go back to prison, as she finds it much easier to survive behind bars, not having to worry about finding a job or learning how to do daily functions. This is an unfortunate reality for many inmates, especially those who entered the prison system before the rise of technology and digital innovation. I hope to see more applications like RACHEL, Edovo, and NSENA VR transform the way inmates are trained, supported, and equipped to successfully function in society. The video almost brought me to tears! It’s incredible how technology can be used in this manner to help bring positive change into this world.

  8. Wow, this was a fascinating read. Your analysis into this issue certainly taught me a lot about a topic I haven’t given much thought to before and made me realize how much I take my access to technology for granted. Frankly speaking, before reading this post I probably would have agreed with some of the critics who have concerns surrounding the use of the internet as it relates to the safety of victims and witness. However, your discussion of the rates of unemployment among this population as a result of the digital gap put this issue into a new (and more empathetic) perspective for me. It was so interesting to read about the innovative ways that companies are bringing digital literacy to inmates and, as some other people have commented, it’s nice to see technology being used for positive social change.

  9. Thank you for your post! It was super informative. When thinking about the ethics of technology, the digital divide is constantly brought up, but mainly in reference to the disparity between first and third world countries. You highlighted a unique population within the US that is experiencing the same divide. Your blog not only questions who should have access to technology, but also how funding for prisons should be allocated and the ethics of private or for profit prisons. As you mentioned the lack of resources and technology, often set up released prisoners for an uphill battle. I think you brought up some companies, like RACHEL and Edovo, that offer real and manageable solutions to these problems. I hope to see some of these solutions implemented soon.

  10. This is awesome! I remember reading a long-form ESPN story about a NFL player, Demaryius Thomas, whose mom was sentenced to twenty years in prison essentially because she refused to testify against her mother (Thomas’ grandmother) who was being sentenced to life in prison for manufacturing and distributing crack. She had never used drugs, aided in the manufacturing, or distributed the drugs. She simply knew it was happening and didn’t call the police on her mother. A few months before the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 in 2016, she was granted clemency by President Obama and subsequently released 15 years into her 20-year sentence. She was completely overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the outside world. It took several months before she felt ready to buy a cell phone (which was a modest flip phone), and she hated Twitter because she felt people were hypercritical towards her son for dropped passes. She had no experience with any of the modern technology that for most of us is a daily staple, and there was so much of it that was foreign and new to her. She even described having panic attacks because she was so overwhelmed by it all. To her, it was information overload. She remarked that her head was about to explode.

    I think finding innovative and safe ways to introduce prisoners to new technologies so that their transition to the outside world isn’t so jarring is critical to reducing the number of incarcerated people in the US, and I’m glad there are some cool social companies that are trying to accomplish that.

  11. This was a terrific blog post! There’s so much here that I never considered. I also loved this quote that you provided: “If we prepare inmates, and I prefer the term ‘students,’ for re-entry by equipping them with appropriate digital skills, access to education, and career content, we are going to reduce recidivism and unlock the potential that is in each of these returning citizens.”

    So many people have the mentality that those who are in prison deserve punishment, which is a very shortsighted way of looking at the issues. The goal of prisons isn’t to punish but to rehabilitate and I think that technology can play a huge role in rehabilitating people and providing them with skills which will greatly reduce recidivism rates.

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