Future Tense

How Prisons Can Use Tech to Slow Their Ever-Revolving Doors

Tech can increase skills, connections, and self-confidence—the very things needed for successful re-entry.

An inmate reads from a book.
This isn’t the only type of literacy that’s important in prison. klebercordeiro/iStock

When Chandra Bozelko re-entered the outside world after being incarcerated from 2007 to 2014, she felt—and in many ways still feels—“totally lost,” she told me recently. Outside of prison, the world had undergone a communication revolution, smartphones its weapons and Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter its ammunition. Bozelko and so many others were released from prison only to find themselves suddenly expected to reintegrate using the very technology they had been isolated from.

Even when it feels like a new technology comes out of nowhere, most of us get a period of adjustment—a gradual process through which we see others pick up the latest devices and features and then do it ourselves. But with a lack of technology training programs in prisons throughout the U.S., most former inmates aren’t given this adjustment period. Instead, as Bozelko did, they walk disoriented and ill-equipped into a world dominated by tech they haven’t encountered before. As one former inmate told WNYC, this experience “was like going from the old ages to Star Wars.”

More than 2 million people are locked up in the U.S., which beats out China and Russia for the undesirable title of the nation with the largest official prison population in the world. A large part of the problem is the high rate of recidivism, or reoffending: According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 83 percent of state prisoners were rearrested at least once within nine years of their release. Many of them were rearrested more than once—in fact, the average number of rearrests was five.

Recidivism is fueled by cycles of poverty, crime, and abuse that are perpetuated by the fact that most former inmates are released into a reality identical to the one that placed them in prison in the first place. Reducing recidivism requires constructing an alternate reality—and technology can help. As it stands, technology is a barrier for many former inmates, who may lack experience interacting in a digital world.

One way to topple that barrier? Social media training. Bozelko is an advocate for limited social media access in prisons, which she says allows inmates to maintain the connections with people on the outside that are crucial for successful re-entry. She isn’t pushing for a free-for-all system in which all inmates get the same online freedom that you and I would on our lunch breaks. Instead, these sorts of training initiatives involve introducing limited platforms to select individuals in a controlled environment in which activity is monitored, access is restricted, and guidance is given.

Part of this guidance, Bozelko said, should center around what behavior is and is not acceptable on social media, because former inmates are particularly susceptible to being taken advantage of via those platforms. When she was released, for example, Bozelko was inundated with Facebook messages and friend requests from men she had never met—men, she later learned, who seek out women recently released from prison, women who might not know that their advances, cloaked behind the relative anonymity of a messaging app, were inappropriate, and in some cases, predatory.

While social media may provide a platform for maintaining relationships and promoting positive social behavior, tech literacy is also important for many inmates to find jobs after incarceration. In 2015, researchers from Portland State University studied a one-week digital literacy acquisition program that was integrated within a larger 10-week re-entry initiative in New Orleans. They found it not only helped participants learn how to do things like successfully submit a job application online, but it also increased self-confidence and autonomy. Elizabeth Withers, one of the researchers for that study, said the participants’ newfound technology skills helped them create a “new sort of imagined future”—the type of future where they had the confidence and know-how to apply for jobs and reconnect with their communities. She said participants went from feeling like the world of technology wasn’t meant for them to feeling empowered in their rights and abilities. The research paper quotes one of the incarcerated students as saying: “To be able to access two screens or three screens at a time … to open up different Windows without actually shutting the computer down and starting all over again … that was one of those wow moments for me.”

Increasingly, the rights and abilities we have as technology users dictate how we can participate in our democracy. How can we expect former inmates to be able to identify fake news without any experience on the platforms that spread it? In the spring, many incarcerated students in the prison I volunteer at struggled to understand the implications of the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal because the latest platform they had experience on was Myspace. When former inmates are released, they will have both rights and responsibilities as technology users—but without education, they’re vulnerable.

Critics of increasing technology access in prisons raise legitimate concerns, most of which center around security—we wouldn’t want inmates to be able to do things like reach out to victims or coordinate illegal activity from behind bars. Corrections departments have successfully addressed those concerns by using isolated local servers, which give inmates access to offline versions of educational websites. And while internet access is not permitted in many facilities, some corrections systems have also used restricted internet connections to give inmates access to approved materials.

Inmates in San Quentin State Prison in California recently made the task of accessing offline content stored on local servers much easier when they developed a search engine they dubbed “JOLT.” As Issie Lapowsky wrote in a recent Wired piece, the search engine helps inmates parse through tools like uploaded textbooks or offline Wikipedia or Stack Overflow content in a context where being able to Google something is an unreachable luxury.

The inmates behind JOLT were participating in a program run by the Last Mile, an organization that uses technology and business training to prepare incarcerated individuals for a successful transition to life on the outside. In 2014, the Last Mile started Code.7370, which the organization says is the first computer coding curriculum in a U.S. prison. Code.7370 students learn languages including HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Python, along with a host of web design and data visualization skills. Gaby Andrada, a program coordinator for the Last Mile, said the program is both “inspirational and aspirational to incarcerated individuals,” with graduates boasting a 0 percent recidivism rate.

Outstanding Code.7370 graduates in San Quentin—true to the prison’s Silicon Valley roots—can even put their skills to use as software engineers at TLM Works, a web development shop within the prison. TLM Works engineers build websites and online tools for clients including the Coalition for Public Safety, Dave’s Killer Bread, and even Airbnb, and they earn an hourly wage of more than $16 —about 19 times the average minimum wage of 86 cents that they might earn working a custodial or maintenance job, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.

For many people who live or work in prisons, the Last Mile’s innovative programs may seem out of reach, a dream that may come true in Northern California but seems unlikely in Texas or Alabama. But while the TLM Works web development shop is currently only operating in San Quentin, the organization’s coding education programs are in six prisons in California and one in Indiana—and the organization is working to make sure its programs are the rule rather than the exception. Andrada said the Last Mile is currently finalizing its curriculum into a learning management system that would standardize technical starting points and provide metrics for monitoring student success. The group hopes to be able to deploy this learning management system across the U.S.—Andrada said they’ve already had interest in more than 25 states, which they hope will translate into having 50 programs running within the next five years.

In the majority of corrections facilities across the U.S., too little time, too little money, and an inertia to keep marching in the same direction often leave programs relatively unchanged. But an unchanged march seems ultimately unsustainable. According to data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the U.S. prison system is already at 103.9 percent capacity. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has placed the cost of running the overcrowded U.S. corrections system at around $81 billion per year. When the Prison Policy Initiative factored in the cost of police and court systems, as well as costs paid by the families of incarcerated people, it bumped the price of mass incarceration up to at least $182 billion. And these high costs have ripple effects—the Department of Education reported that from 1979 to 2013, state and local corrections expenditures grew at triple the rate of education expenditures.

In short, the American prison system needs an update—one that will shift focus from policies that reinforce cycles of crime to ones that break them. Technology may not be a panacea, but it can help former inmates in critical ways. There are a lot of different methods to introduce tech into the system—social media training, digital literacy programs, coding courses. This is a place for tech companies who claim to care about social impact to step in to provide the willpower, funding, and people necessary to make tech a part of life in prison—and to help make time spent in prison short-lived and unrepeated.