Opinion: Improve technology in prisons

Emily Mooney and Kat Crawford

As our nation continues to fight the coronavirus, it has become readily apparent that life will not go back to normal any time soon. Indeed, over 51,000 Michigan residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 4,800 have died as of May 17. In an effort to fight the spread of the virus, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed businesses and ordered residents to stay home

Fortunately for most of us, technology has proven itself a godsend, ready to bear some of the weight of our demands: continued education, teleworking and virtual connections with loved ones. However, for one very vulnerable population, poor technology infrastructure means they don’t have these same opportunities. 

Indeed, incarcerated youth and adults are now even more isolated thanks to this pandemic. For the sake of both mental wellness and future public safety, this is something policymakers must work to change by embracing the use of technology behind bars.

Isolation can quickly beget loneliness and lead to or exacerbate depressive symptoms, anxiety and other mental illnesses. In fact, incarcerated people already exhibit higher rates of mental illness and psychological distress than the general population. So, the longer isolation occurs, the more likely any individual is to exhibit negative behaviors, as positive lines of communication and outlets are removed, and circumstances begin to feel more desperate. In these cases, connecting with others and finding some semblance of normalcy becomes critical for their mental health and wellbeing.

After 43 years in prison — more than 25 years of that on death row — Johnny Lee Gates walked out of custody a free man on Friday. Gates’s lawyers later showed that prosecutors used blatant race discrimination during jury selection and persuaded the Georgia Supreme Court to grant Gates a new trial based on newly discovered DNA evidence.

Maintaining social connections and reentry programming is also vital to rehabilitation. Research suggests that positive connections to the outside world are associated with lower rates of prison misconduct and reductions in the likelihood that a person returns to crime once they are released. Strong family relationships, in particular, are critical for meeting practical needs like housing and employment as individuals return to society. 

Likewise, it is crucial to ensure people are still able to use their time behind bars to prepare for reentry and receive a quality education. Educational attainment among both youth and adults has long been a protective factor against future crime. One study in nearby Minnesota found that earning a postsecondary degree while behind bars reduced an individual’s odds of reincarceration due to a new offense by 24%. 

Fortunately, Michigan has already taken some positive steps to aid virtual connections and programming behind bars. An executive order signed in March specifically encouraged juvenile detention centers to promote “access to family, education, and legal counsel through electronic means” as much as possible. And communication vendors contracted with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) are providing two free stamps a week and slightly reduced internet and mobile rates.

However, this initiative is far from sufficient. Two free stamps is a drop in the bucket when one is grappling with the anxiety of a pandemic.

For these reasons, policymakers must work quickly to expand technology behind bars. They can begin by subsidizing the cost of existing communication services and investing in more advanced technology like tablets. Features and apps that allow individuals to connect virtually with family members, teachers, case managers, legal counsel and treatment providers could be installed onto devices. Finally, to facilitate the safe use of technology, corrections administrators should allow people to access secure, white-listed internet and create Wi-Fi hotspots around facilities. 

This is not impossible. States like Florida and Massachusetts already have Google Chromebooks in some facilities. In Davidson County, Tennessee, every person placed in isolation has a tablet. And policymakers in New Orleans have worked to provide Wi-Fi in several living units during the pandemic. Implementing a stronger technology infrastructure may require a heavy lift on the front-end, but if done thoughtfully with an eye toward meaningful engagement, corrections departments will be better prepared to mitigate the ills of future crises.

This technology may only be a short-term salve. But both this pandemic and academic research suggest a virtual connection is still better than none at all.   

Emily Mooney is a resident criminal justice policy fellow at the R Street Institute. Kat Crawford is the director of technology solutions at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.