The reflexive and illogical ban on internet use by prisoners makes society less safe, damages families and is another appalling example of the gratuitous suffering we inflict on prisoners. It also highlights the primitive manner in which we continue to sentence offenders, almost totally divorced from normative and empirical learning. Governments should immediately legislate to provide inmates with full and unfettered (albeit monitored) access to the internet.
Technological advances have resulted in momentous changes to nearly every area of human activity, including engineering, medicine, transport and communications. Standing stubbornly outside this near-universal trend is the way in which the community punishes criminals. The bedrock process for dealing with serious criminals now, as it has been for hundreds of years, is to segregate them from the rest of society by placing them behind high impenetrable walls.
The conditions in prison have remained remarkably stagnant for inmates during this time. They are kept in oppressive, often violent conditions and almost totally shut off from the outside word – apart from token visiting privileges and limited access to television and newspapers.
So much has changed in the world outside prisons over the past two few decades. The single biggest change is the impact of technology on our lives – the role of the internet in particular.
The internet is an integral and irreplaceable tool for most people. We use it in all aspects of our lives, especially our social, study, business and work activities. Surveys show that some people would rather be without food and water than the internet.
Yet internet access is totally denied to one group in the community: prisoners. Paradoxically, the pain from this spills over into the community.
A key tool for education and rehabilitation
Educating and integrating offenders is the key rehabilitative tool. And the internet is the most effective means of providing education to prisoners.
According to the RAND Corporation, inmates participating in correctional education programs have on average a 43% lower chance of reoffending. Prisoners who participated in academic or vocational education programs in prison are also 13% more likely to obtain employment after their release.
The importance of access to the internet goes well beyond educational advantages. The internet is a key tool for easing inmates’ re-entry into the community. It is indispensable to any effort to apply for jobs and benefits, enrol in education and search for housing.
The US Department of Education observes:
Most, if not all, of these pre-release activities require some form of computer or telecommunication device and internet access.
Lack of access punishes innocent relatives
Denying prisoners internet access damages not only them, but also their relatives. This is especially true given that most prisons are located in remote regions and have very limited visiting rights. This damage should be minimised, especially from the perspective of the relatives. They are blameless.
Access to the internet would enable prisoners to have extensive real-time and meaningful contact with their relatives. Sustaining the continued development of these relationships enhances the relatives’ quality of life while reducing the extent to which their interests are collaterally damaged by the misdeeds of others.
Of course, providing internet access to prisoners poses potential problems. Most notable is the concern about providing prisoners with a medium through which they could commit more crime. This might include harassing and threatening victims and witnesses.
Abuse of access can be controlled
However, the security concerns are overrated. Modern technology provides effective solutions to possible internet abuse by prisoners. A prisoner’s every keystroke can be readily tracked.
Every single type of interaction that an inmate has via the internet can be monitored. This includes web accesses, analysis of sites visited, the nature of searches undertaken and full text recognition and analysis of all information sent and received.
Artificial intelligence techniques are now such that not only can literal matches be made with problematic language in emails or troubling terms used in search engines, but also semantic meaning can be extracted from the entire body of a document. Endpoint security can enable the targeted or random flagging of inmate’s internet activity, for a human guard to investigate if inappropriate activity is taking place.
Occasional use violation will occur, but the solution to this is obvious. The prisoner who committed the breach should have internet use suspended or cancelled. Depending on the nature of breach, they may also be charged with a criminal offence. It is a grossly disproportionate response to punish all prisoners for the possible or actual infractions of a few.
A large amount of pornography is available on the internet. It is likely that proposals for prisoner internet access will be met with objections to the possible downloading of pornography in prison. However, in principle and pragmatically, these objections can be surmounted.
Prisoners in some jurisdictions already have (limited) conjugal visits. Logically, and emotively, if prisoners can have sex, it is illogical to deny them the capacity to watch sex.
Internet access to prisoners would lessen the pain stemming from incarceration in a manner that does not undermine the principal objectives of imprisonment — community protection and the infliction of a hardship. At the same time it provides prisoners with the opportunity to develop skills, knowledge and relationships that will better equip them for a productive life once they are released.
Continued internet deprivation is nothing other than an inexcusable continuation of the wanton summary punishment we inflict on prisoners.
This piece is based on a forthcoming article in the Akron Law Review, “The hardship that is internet deprivation and what it means for sentencing”, co-authored with Dr Nick Fischer.