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Inmate internet access more than a prison perk

  • 10 October 2019
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.

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