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.