20 June, 2014

When Will Missouri Let Its Prisoners Join the Electronic Conversation?

Washington, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana — all states that now sell mini-tablet computers to their prisoners for personal use. For around fifty dollars, vendors such as JPay and Keefe Group offer the devices to penitentiaries, preloaded with (administratively limited) software for music downloads, gaming, and e-mail, thereby affording the incarcerated another, much-needed connection to the distant world.

Of course victims’ rights groups are terrified of what the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s mouthpiece described last year as “unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims.” However, because e-mail is even easier to monitor than the already-permitted (and well-policed) telephone conversations prisoners are having (think: filters and automated keyword monitoring, plus ease of storage and of live-human retrieval), NOVA’s argument is a little silly. The frequently extreme perspective of victims’ rights groups should be taken into consideration when weighing what privileges prisoners ought to be granted. Many would have convicts of every stripe sentenced to hard labor and bread-and-water diets.

To be fair, there are prisoners who might try to use electronic means to commit their nefarious deeds, but no more than are currently doing so with cell phones smuggled in by guards and other prison staff. (It’s interesting to point out here that illicit cell phone use in Texas prisons plummeted when the Lone Star State installed telephones in its facilities’ housing units, a statistic one Texas prison official attributed, on record with techno-culture magazine Wired, to most prisoners simply wanting to call home.) For public and institutional safety, the channels for contraband need to be closed. Until staff members are caught red-handed, breaking rules, it’s an unfortunate fact that prison administrators tend to treat their staff as being beyond reproach. This would have to change before truly effective security measures could be enacted. Maybe victims’ rights groups should recalibrate their sights to aim at greater institutional scrutiny of prison employees.

Prisoners with a supportive social structure beyond the facility walls have been shown, in study after study, more likely to rehabilitate and less likely to reoffend, and there can be little doubt that being able to send and receive e-mail will improve prisoners’ feelings of connectedness to loved ones and society as a whole. I’ve personally bemoaned the inconvenience of snail mail for years. Not only would my contacts appreciate not having to fold, seal, and stamp everything they send my way, the editors, scholars, and businesses I sometimes reach out to would be more apt to reply (you might be amazed by the number of people for whom an enclosed SASE is not sufficient motivation).

Yes, mine is a biased opinion. I’m ready to get back to Information Age communication methods. This ubergeek struggled mightily, while awaiting trial in the county detention center, with symptoms of Internet withdrawal — disconnectedness from always-on friendships, mainly — and the thirteen-year interim hasn’t done anything to mitigate my frustration. Being able to tap out e-mails from my bunk and view pics in my inbox of my mother’s trips abroad, my godson’s childhood milestones, my friends’ #humblebrag Instagram posts (I’m far less interested in games, or even MP3s) would do so much to reduce the isolation that is my normal. Loath as I am to entertain thoughts of things to make my prison stay more comfortable, it seems as though, as long as I have to be sequestered by injustice, buying a gadget to ease the pangs of separation seems like a worthy consideration.

It took until 2004 before the Missouri Department of Corrections gave its prisoners the go-ahead to buy CD players. It started selling us flat-screen TVs a few years later. Devices are one matter, social betterment is quite another. So is money. States that offer prisoners the mini-tablet computers I mentioned earlier don’t only profit from markups on the hardware. When Keefe Group introduced its MP3 player and penitentiary approved music-download service in 2009, it netted more than a million song downloads, each of which deposited a percentage into the state’s coffers, too — and that’s solely music, a luxury. E-mail satisfies a deeper craving — that for human contact — and is self-perpetuating, since nearly every click of Send leads to another click of Read, which, in turn, leads to a click of Reply. There’s money to be made here, broke Missouri, and I’m willing to let you have mine.

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