Think of all the technological innovations over the last two decades that we use to stay connected to each other on a daily basis: computers, tablets, smartphones, and wireless Internet access. For many of us, it is difficult to imagine living without these conveniences.
What if you had been asleep for the past 20 years? What would you think an “app” is? To you, a smartphone would look like something out of a science fiction movie, and it would be staggering to you if someone told you that an infinite amount of information could be accessed from a device that fits in your pocket. You would feel like a time traveler who had gone far into the distant future.
This is exactly what it would be like if you had just been released from prison after 20 years. Technologically speaking, prisoners exist in a state of suspended animation. Cut off from the world that has advanced leaps and bounds from the time they began their sentences, many prisoners have never seen the things the rest of us take for granted.
How in the world are they supposed to catch up and reenter society as productive citizens capable of holding a job that will likely require them to know at least a little about life in the Information Age?
Better Rehabilitation Through Technology
One California city is leading the way in getting its prisoners up to speed on today’s technology. A new pilot program in San Francisco has provided 100 inmates in the city’s jail with special tablet computers that have limited access to the Internet for purposes of educating inmates. The tablets can only access four secure websites, including a law library, and educational sites designed to help inmates get their high school diploma and learn new skills that will help them reenter society upon their release.
San Francisco’s pilot program cost $275,000, with funds provided by the city’s Adult Probation Department, the Five Keys Charter School, and the California Wellness Foundation, a private, independent foundation that gives grants to promote wellness education. The money is used to provide the tablets and to digitize the educational materials needed to run the program.
San Francisco’s chief probation officer, Wendy Still, says a program like this will save taxpayer dollars in the long run and reduce recidivism.
“If we do not make this investment in tablets and tech in rehab programs, then [inmates] are going to continue committing crimes, which is very costly to the taxpayer,” Still said. 1
A Win-Win for Taxpayers, Police, and Prisoners
If one of the goals of our penal system is to rehabilitate prisoners so they do not become repeat offenders, then programs like San Francisco’s tablet program move us in the right direction. Research studies have shown that for every dollar invested in prisoner education programs, the costs of incarceration are reduced by four to five dollars during the first three years after an inmate’s release. 2 Programs like this have proven effective in reducing recidivism, as inmates who participate in these programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than inmates who do not. 3
Often, recently released prisoners commit crimes because they cannot adjust to the society that has changed while they were incarcerated. That adjustment process is more difficult when the rest of the world around them has a lengthy head start on adapting to new technology. How is a person who has never used the Internet going to apply to a job that only accepts online applications?
Though many inmates have heard about new forms of communication such as email and text messaging from friends and family, few have actual hands-on experience with them. 4 Programs like San Francisco’s can help inmates bridge the technological gap from incarceration to release, and will give them new skills to keep them from going back to the life that put them behind bars.
Share Your Feedback With Us
We at Wallin & Klarich would like to hear from you about this topic. Do you think that San Francisco’s program is a step in the right direction? Or do you think the taxpayers’ money would be better spent in a different way? What are some of the reasons you see that would make these laws a good or bad idea? Please feel free to leave your comments below.
1. [Lydia O’Connor, “The Device That Could Help Keep Former Inmates Out Of Jail For Good,” Huffington Post, October 28, 2014, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/28/san-francisco-inmates-tablets_n_6063840.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000021&ir=Crime.]↩
2. [RAND Corporation, “Education and Vocational Training in Prisons Reduces Recidivism, Improves Job Outlook,” available at http://www.rand.org/news/press/2013/08/22.html]↩
4. [Justine Sharrock, “The Internet Explained By Prisoners Who Have Never Seen It,” Buzzfeed News, August 29, 2013, available at http://www.buzzfeed.com/justinesharrock/the-internet-explained-by-prisoners-who-have-never-seen-it.]↩