How a Technology Gap Punishes Former Prisoners

Even using a cell phone after being behind bars for decades can be impossible

Key Takeaways

  • Former prisoners often suffer because they can’t adjust to modern technology, experts say.
  • The coronavirus pandemic is making the need for technological equality more apparent. 
  • Tech training in prisons could help the incarcerated adjust to society once they are released, observers say.

Recently freed prisoners suffer from a lack of access to technology, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and unable to access social services, in a crisis that’s growing more acute due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The formerly incarcerated often are out of touch with modern tech, putting them at a disadvantage in finding jobs and schooling their children, experts say. One recent study found, for example, that many women coming out of prison frequently have inadequate access to the internet, rely on cell phones for online tasks, and know little about protecting their privacy.

"Once these women are released from prison they come back to this very rapidly changing digital media environment,"  Hyunjin Seo, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas and one of the study’s authors, said in a phone interview. "They were isolated for a significant period of time, sometimes for 10 or 15 years, without having access to technology. The effect can be traumatic." 

The needs of former prisoners are growing. Over 10,000 ex-prisoners are released from America’s state and federal prisons every week. Many more are let go from local jails. And the coronavirus means that many prisons and jails are accelerating the release of prisoners to try and prevent outbreaks.

Spending time in prison is like being "trapped in a time warp,"  DeAnna Hoskins, president, and CEO of the prison reform advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA and herself a former prisoner said in an email interview. "Individuals incarcerated only have limited access to Wi-Fi," she said. "The only internet access they get is through video visitation, email, and music players."

Blue prison bars.
Sabari Balaji M / Getty Images

Job Searches Without Tech Skills

Getting a job is one of the biggest hurdles former prisoners face upon their release and not having tech skills makes it even harder, experts say. "Technology skills are attractive to potential employers, and in many cases required," Amy Shlosberg, chair of the Department Criminology and Criminal Justice at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said in an email interview. "Practically speaking, the first step for most people is crafting a resume, which requires a degree of digital literacy. Finding a job opening requires conducting online searches and/or accessing various websites and apps." 

Simple things, like using a smartphone, can stymie prisoners who may have been incarcerated since the days of rotary phones. "Even if they are fortunate to have the funds to buy a phone, it is unlikely they know how to operate one," Shlosberg said. "Without communication access, they are cut off from family, friends, and support services. This is especially problematic for those who are on parole as many in-person check-ins have been suspended due to the pandemic and check-ins therefore must occur through other means." 

Access to the internet is so important that some nonprofits distribute smartphones to those recently released from prison. These phones can be a matter of survival, Noam Keim, program manager of Philadelphia, Pa.-based advocacy group The Center for Carceral Communities, which distributes cell phones. One recent Saturday at 9 pm "one of the people who received our cell phones called us," he said in an email interview. 

"He had just been released from the county jail, without any money or place to stay and it was freezing that night. Because he had a phone with our number saved in it, he was able to reach our team and asked for help finding housing for that night. The homeless outreach told us they had no available beds, but because of our network of support we were able to place him into a room that night."

Even government services, including public housing, public assistance, and Medicaid often requires online applications, Hoskins said. Accessing a birth certificate online which is needed to apply for public assistance is a challenge, she added. "This is one of the most complained about issues as most people, especially older adults, struggle with just adapting to the outside world and now they are far behind in even being independent as they must rely on someone else," she added. "The immediate shock of change is a huge factor in suicides, drug use, and reincarcerations within the first 90 days."

Old ruined abandonated prison cells interior
 franckreporter / Getty Images

Coronavirus Deepens Crisis

The tech gap is worsening the social and economic effects of the coronavirus crisis for newly freed prisoners. "With COVID all public access buildings are asking individuals to go online and make an appointment," Hoskins said. 

The pandemic is further marginalizing a group that is already struggling, Keim said. "We’re working with a population that relies heavily on public spaces for socialization, work, and resources," he said. "With the pandemic, major resources hubs such as libraries are closed; those are the spaces where people would usually go to send a resume or receive support looking for employment. How do you teach digital literacy remotely?"

Many former prisoners are impoverished and are having difficulty finding ways to access the internet during the pandemic, Seo said. "These folks used to go to public libraries for example to get online," she added. "While libraries are slowly opening to the public they are still generally not fully open so it poses real challenges for this group."

Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners
 Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Tech Help for Former Inmates

Figuring out how to help former inmates reintegrate into society with all its technological complexities is a tough problem, observers say. One solution might be allowing inmates to use technology when they are still in prison, which can help them upon their release. Shlosberg suggests offering tech training programs in correctional facilities. "I believe we should consider granting inmates limited, and controlled access to certain forms of social media," she said. "Those who have strong bonds to family, friends, and the community at large are more likely to be successful upon release." 

Once out of prison, former inmates need further tech education and access to things like PCs and high-speed internet to function fully in modern society, experts say. Free cell phones are one step but more is needed.

While many major cities like New York have public hotspots, others, including Philadelphia, don’t. "How do we expect low-income households to stay connected and receive the support they need without that access," Keim said. "It’s time for our city governments to acknowledge that the internet cannot be a luxury and there needs to be consistent and free public Wi-Fi." 

Hoskins says deeper changes are necessary. She called for the American criminal justice system to pivot to a rehabilitative model rather than a merely punitive one. "Education has been a key factor in lower recidivism rates," she said. "Technology can be part of the programs even those that have private education programs are using old school paper and pens even writing papers using a manual typewriter."

The coronavirus has a way of sharpening our focus on society’s inequities. For those recently released from prison, true freedom might not come until they are equal digital citizens.