Inmate internet access more than a prison perk

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For a nation with such a significant convict history, Australians take a peculiarly puritanical approach to prisoners' welfare. Punishment, not rehabilitation, is often viewed as the point of the justice system. We take a very dim view of anything that could be construed as a prisoner perk.

Man in suit and tie sitting at desk with computer and prison bar shadows falling across him. (Credit: Fanatic Studio / Getty)One such perceived privilege is access to the internet. Outside of prison, access to the internet is increasingly seen as a human right. In modern life, we go online to access government, health and financial services as well as education and employment opportunities. It's how we maintain social networks and connect with friends and family. 

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) 2019 measures Australia's online participation according to access, affordability, and digital ability. It recognises that the 'digital divide' — the uneven distribution of internet access and digital literacy — is a major contributor to social disadvantage.

'The goal of digital inclusion is to enable everyone to access and use digital technologies effectively,' states the report. 'Social and economic participation lies at the heart of digital inclusion: using online and mobile technologies to improve skills, enhance quality of life, educate, and promote wellbeing, civic engagement and sustainable development across the whole of society.'

Many Australian prisoners already come from disadvantaged backgrounds, outlined in detail by an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report, 'The health of Australia's prisoners 2018'. According to the report, one third of prison entrants in 2018 did not complete year 10, while just 19 per cent completed year 12. One third were homeless in the four weeks before they went to prison, two in five reported a previous mental illness diagnosis and almost one in three had a chronic physical health condition. 

Exacerbating that disadvantage is digital exclusion, a common feature of life in correctional centres. In Australia, very few prisons provide inmates with regular internet access. When former inmate Damien Linnane tried to find a course to study while he was in prison, he learned that 'no internet' and 'next to no computer access' meant that pursuing higher education during his incarceration was pretty much out of the question. 

Yet the case for providing internet and in-cell computer access is strong. In 2018, the Australian Institute of Criminology published 'Prisoner use of information and communications technology', an article examining the challenges, risks and benefits of bridging the 'digital divide' in the prisoner population. Digital communication, write Aysha Kerr and Matthew Willis, has 'become an integral part of everyday life, and providing prisoners with a degree of autonomy in using such technologies to undertake basic tasks better equips them for life after release'.

 

"Digital access in prisons has been shown to improve both prisoner behaviour and their prospects after release."

 

The reason usually given for withholding internet access is security, but many jurisdictions have managed to provide digital services in their corrections facilities without compromising security. The Alexander Maconochie Centre in the Australian Capital Territory is the only prison in Australia to provide its inmates with email access. Each week, inmates send 22,000 emails to select lists of pre-approved recipients with no serious breaches to security.

Kerr and Willis cite research that shows that digital technology, rather than posing a risk, can improve security. Email access allows prison staff to monitor communication using keyword searches and other automated tools rather than perform the labour-intensive task of reading through physical mail. Electronic communication, including video calls, also permits inmates to stay in touch with family and friends without the risk of contraband entering the prison via mail or in-person visits. 

Digital access in prisons has also been shown to improve both prisoner behaviour and their prospects after release. A UK study of prisons that had installed self-service digital technology found both a drop in disciplinary offences and a 5.36 per cent fall in reoffending in the first year after release, compared to a 0.78 per cent reduction in comparison prisons. 'Prisoners felt much more in control of their lives in prison and much more confident in coping with technology in the outside world,' write the study's authors.

Education has been shown to reduce recidivism, yet with so much learning now online, it's almost impossible to study without digital access. An exception is a program run by the University of Southern Queensland, which allows inmates to study using offline devices and course materials. It's not available in New South Wales, however, due to perceived security risks.

In Australia, the rate of recidivism is high. In 2017-18, 45.6 per cent of prisoners released in 2015-16 returned to prison with a new sentence. We know that education, rehabilitation, social connection and digital literacy reduce the likelihood of reoffending — so why don't we make these the pillars of the prison system?

Instead, we're sending ex-offenders into the community ill-equipped to navigate modern life. The 2018 AIHW report found that just 17 per cent of prison dischargees completed a qualification during their incarceration. Only 22 per cent of dischargees had organised employment to begin two weeks after release; 62 per cent had no work lined up. More than half expected to be homeless.   

The prison population in Australia is markedly fluid: more than 95 per cent of inmates currently in prison will be released into the community. Denying inmates access to the internet exacerbates social exclusion and makes their reintegration after release more difficult. Whether these individuals end up contributing to society or going back to prison is greatly influenced by their experience in prison. 

Digital inclusion isn't a prisoner perk; it's an integral component of rehabilitation that benefits not just the individual but the entire community.

 

 

Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath. Main image credit: Fanatic Studio / Getty

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, prisoners, internet access

 

 

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Existing comments

Perhaps the connotations of "digital" and connectivity need some reconsideration. There's little necessity to remain "online" for a wide variety of cert 3 and 4 courses... and in fact, little (no) evidence to support that curriculum content or candidate submissions / exercises are improved by remaining online during learning activities. The USQ courses (and many other similar) can also generally be completed "in hand writing"; I appreciate that this seems to be that digital divide, but the fact remains that any nationally recognized qualifications from any recognized training organization (RTO) can be completed in any State. Having LLN qualifications myself I'd counter the necessity for computer access because I frequently find that trainees identify the PC as something they have difficulty with. ..go figure. A HAZOP of the on-line access/activities would identify a significant risk of misuse; unfortunately criminal activities already frequently occur with inmate access to digital platforms. Your cited statistical low rates of course completion need further evaluation; excuse the levity but the same stats could lead you to argue that longer prison sentences would increase the chances of course completion.
ray | 10 October 2019


Thanks for your article. A refreshing sensible, insightful perspective
Judy Dynan | 11 October 2019


Nicola, I totally agree. A decent education is the right of everyone. As a retired teacher, I support the need to better educate the socially disadvantaged who end up in being incarcerated so that they can reintegrate more effectively into society on release. Being computer literate is a necessity these days.
Gavin A. O'Brien | 11 October 2019


When I was employed in the NSW prison system, many of my students could neither read nor write Access to the internet would not assist them very much. The positive interaction with a teacher made great deal of difference. Trying to do the course from Queensland did not work because reading material had to be downloaded and this was not possible with out internet connection. A student could not buy the necessary reading material after the first two years I was involved.
Gabrielle Jarvis | 12 October 2019


Impressive journalistic advocacy on behalf of the underdog! Keep writing.
Michael Furtado | 12 October 2019


Can we please only speak about people as being people, and not underdogs, MF? People are people. And dogs are dogs. Just as fish are fish. And birds are birds.
AO | 14 October 2019


Heard a report on radio today that 40% of the current prison population has dyslexia, dysgraphia or other communication disorder all of which are major contributors to social disadvantage.
john frawley | 14 October 2019


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