Free and open society

Recently read this Fusion piece on “the prison system’s illicit digital world.” A true scandal in our nation is our incarceration rate, and the lack of empathy that implies about our approach to justice. Imposing mandatory minimums for certain crimes, thereby removing a judge’s sentencing discretion, is an example of what grows our prison population.

It’s no surprise today that those people serving sentences seek access to communications. And it’s no surprise that the relationships that can be sustained through access to technology can root a person by keeping them connected to a stable family member or mentor. And it’s no surprise that access to technology will also be abused. So monitoring should play a role there just as it has for traditional prison communications. But if we’re concerned with creating a more just society, our approach has to change:

The economic and legal arguments for more technology in prisons are strong. Courts have repeatedly affirmed inmates’ right to conduct legal research on their own behalf, using up-to-date materials that are increasingly found only online. And studies have shown that prisoners who maintain regular contact with their friends and family members while incarcerated are far less likely to re-offend. (One study, conducted in 2011 by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found that inmates who received visits while incarcerated were 13 percent less likely to be re-convicted, and 25 percent less likely to violate the terms of their parole.) Lower recidivism rates mean fewer people in prison, which leads to taxpayer savings and healthier state and federal budgets.

As a student at Penn State I was involved with The LION 90.7fm, the campus radio station. Not far from Penn State’s campus is Rockview prison. One of the few pieces of technology they’re permitted is a radio, and so often our station’s airwaves became a way for them to communicate with family. A person serving time at Rockview could tune in from his cell and hear his wife or girlfriend or father call in with a shoutout, encouraging him on-air and dedicating a song to him. It wasn’t uncommon for students at the station to form relationships with some of those serving time, because they would write letters to the station thanking the student broadcasters for being a sort of lifeline. I read many of those letters, written in pencil on grade school style loose leaf. They shared stories about their life before prison, about their experiences inside, and about their hopes for their future. Those letters, that sort of communication, was a profound thing. That’s what technology can do.

Now imagine a system where modern technology was allowed, and where new approaches to serve the incarcerated could be implemented. Imagine being able to volunteer as a life coach, mentor, career, or education adviser to someone in prison looking to build a better life. Imagine a special digital platform on your mobile device to communicate regularly with that person, and how that relationship could change both lives.

Our policies aren’t just impacting those serving time, they’re impacting our whole culture.

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