Opinion //

In defence of the digital cell

If the purpose of incarceration is to reduce recidivism then we can’t allow prisoners to be left behind in the digital revolution.

Imagine a world without Facebook. Without the constant stream of holiday photos and check-ins, you have to mail a letter or use a landline to find out what your loved ones have been getting up to. No Skype either. Or Facetime. Or even Google. No Wikipedia; if you want to quickly find something out you have to start flicking through books. As people who grew up during the digital revolution, can you imagine a time before these things existed?

For some, this is a reality.

Currently, prisoners in NSW are severely restricted in their access to computers and their connection to the World Wide Web. Inmates receive access to computers under a strict schedule — usually around three hours in the morning — and only under supervision. This schedule works one-way, meaning inmates cannot exceed their allotted time but can often have that time cut short if there are too few staff. Priority of access is given to those who are illiterate, and as resources aren’t overflowing, not everyone who needs a computer is granted one. Inmates undertaking tertiary level courses are then disadvantaged, as they lack access to the technology they need to contact course advisors and do the study.

Having prisoners who are digitally literate, and physically connected to computers on a regular basis, is something Former Supreme Court Judge John Dowd believes should be a priority for the NSW government. There is already a precedent for this: prisons in the ACT have been able to permit regular access to computers through a program that supplies inmates’ cells with individual laptops. The program has been positively correlated with the reduction in recidivism rates in the ACT.

Individualised access to computers has boosted inmates’ connection to their family and friends. Prisoners can e-mail an approved list of contacts, similar to how telephone access is currently managed, and expect to receive a response within five minutes. Each email is checked by prison staff for security purposes, so larger emails with attachments can be delayed by a couple of days. But this almost instantaneous communication grants inmates a greater sense of connection with the outside world; one that will help many when it is time to integrate back into society. Studies have proven that if prisoners can maintain key connections to the outside world, they are more likely to be successful in their rehabilitation process. Justice Dowd believes this type of regular access to online communication could be specifically utilised in NSW prisons to help prisoners gain additional access to counseling services. Access to online counseling services is estimated to reduce domestic violence recidivism rates by 30 per cent.

There are barely any jobs in the 21st century where digital literacy is not a prerequisite. It therefore seems logical that we would want inmates to possess the necessary skills required for available jobs when they leave prison. Skills that may seem simple to us, like using Microsoft Office, have to be learned and maintained, particularly when technology is rapidly updating.

Increased access to educational resources, however, is the main benefit of instituting laptops in cells. Removing the boundaries of enforced schedules allows inmates to engage in tertiary or TAFE courses. Laptops in cells can still be shut down automatically by prison staff at curfew hours, but these hours “in-cell” are extended beyond normal “exercise hours”, and inmates can remain connected much longer. Much like connections to one’s family and friends, there is a clear correlation between higher education levels and the likelihood of committing crimes.

Digitising the cell may seem like a tough task to take on; how can we balance security of the community with the evident benefits that the digital world would provide? The program’s success in the ACT is a good indicator of its potential future in NSW, and, as Dowd states, “prisoners in NSW are not necessarily different to the prisoners in the ACT.” Security challenges could be tackled similarly, and equally as effectively. In-built filters and restricted access to Internet sites are some of the measures taken by PrisonPc, the company responsible for distribution of the laptops.

Time spent in prison is often described as “dead time”, meaning it is wasted. Considering this, personal computers can offer considerable advantages to make prisoners’ time productive. If our modern justice system is to continue to at least pretend to operate under the guise of wanting to produce rehabilitated and well-rounded citizens, then this type of program must be developed and implemented in NSW.

Erin Jordan is an intern at Justice Action and helped compile their submission titled ‘Computers in Cells’.