Friday, 3 June 2011

Should prisoners have access to the internet?

Prisoners do not have access to the internet and many people think that this is just as it should be.  The longer I work in jails, though, the more I think that, looking at the big picture, this is probably unhelpful.

There are good reasons for not allowing the prisoners access to the internet and I acknowledge that, but I believe the arguments on the other side should carry a greater weight.

Firstly, any "privilege" that is given to prisoners immediately and without fail generates negative headlines in the tabloids.  Journalists and many of the public - and I do understand this - would complain that it is most unfair that those who have broken the law should get something paid for out of the public purse that the law-abiding struggle to afford.

Secondly, there is the danger of furnishing criminals with the ability and the opportunity to increase their criminal activity.  There are two ways that this could happen. 

1) A prisoner previously computer-illiterate who gains expertise on the internet and then manages to secure a mobile phone (these are illegal in jail but there is a trade in them and every now and then a mobile phone, a recharger, or a SIM card is found) could use his new-found communication skills for criminal purposes.  Drug dealers can carry on lucrative business empires from within prison, for example.  Prisoners on remand can intimidate witnesses.  And so on.

2)  A prisoner may use his new-found computer skills when he gets out of prison.  Indeed he may go the whole way and develop an interest in computer crime.  How is the prison to know why the prisoner is keen on participating in education?  It could be (a) a soft option to get out of more physical work parties such as the cookhouse, (b) part of a grand plan for building the criminal career already embarked on, but it could also be (c) a genuine desire to get educated and (d) a determination to get a job and go straight on release.

There are arguments for allowing prisoners access to the internet and, as I say, they seem to me to outweigh the arguments on the other side.

The truth is that many prisoners (I suspect most) really want to keep out of trouble in the future.  Many of them are highly motivated, and have worked very hard during their sentence.  They have tried to address their offending behaviour and the reasons for it.  They have fought and won (at least for now) their addiction battle.  They have done what they could do repair their family relationships.  But as the time draws near for release they are often apprehensive and feel unprepared.  Or - perhaps worse - others don't feel unprepared but feel supremely and misguidedly confident that all will be straightforward when clearly it won't.

We who have not been out of circulation at Her Majesty's pleasure over the past years know that the internet is a huge part of modern life and can only imagine how handicapped we would be by having missed out on it all.

I suspect that even the most low-paid, ordinary, unglamorous job on the outside may involve you being able to send emails to your employer and receive them in return.  Being unable to do so will have a real impact on your employability on release.

Prisoners' families will be internet-literate and this will add to the prisoners' feeling of distancing from them.  Ex-prisoners who know about Google, for instance, will be able to help their kids with their homework projects, and prisoners who know about social networking will be able to know more about what their children are up to.

By no means all prisoners, even if they are highly motivated, will secure employment on release.  They will be most likely be living on a very low income, perhaps just state benefits.  The internet offers great ways to save money.  I am currently expecting the delivery of a pair of curtains for my son's bedroom.  I bought them on E-bay and although they are new and still in their packaging they are pre-owned and therefore I was able to buy them for well below half their value.  Guys coming out of prison could do with knowing about such a thing.

Should prisoners have access to the internet?  I would say that they should. 

Certainly they shouldn't have limitless unsupervised access to the internet.  I think we might feel irked by the idea that they were watching pornography for example, or that they were controlling their drugs empire, or bullying their partners.  Schools, though, can set up restrictions and limitations to what the kids can access and the prisons could do likewise.

I'm not advocating they should get to blog, or use social networking sites or be posting comments on newspaper online sites, but I am arguing for basic internet familiarity, including emails, shopping for bargains, booking tickets, googling facts and so on to be a major part of the education program on offer in our prisons.

Whether you love or hate prisoners (fellow Christians reading this will know which God expects them to do) you should want to see them rehabilitated, if not for their sake then for the sake of potential future victims which could include you and yours.  In the year 2011 I think we need to fact the fact that full reintegration back into society will for most involve familiarisation with the internet.


dickiebo said...

Frankly, A-D, I see the real problem as being generalising to the extent that all prisoners are prisoners!!! Whilst that is a fact, it is hardly possible to believe that they are all similar in any way, shape or form!
If a person is banged-up for 18 years for very serious crime, it goes against the grain to see him/her being given 'luxuries'. However, if a person is incarcerated for a comparatively short period, for committing a minor crime, and is most likely to be a normal citizen thereafter, then it does make sense for them to be treated accordingly. i.e.Prepare them for continuation of a normal existence upon release.
The trouble with even this approach is that the decisions will probably be in the hands of these infernal politicians, who are just sooooo out-of-touch with the wishes of the vast majority of people.

BeckyG said...

Hi AnneDroid,

Something about the idea of allowing prisoners internet access sits uncomfortably with me. The possibility of the continuation of criminal activities is, as you say, a potential problem that I don't think can be ignored, and neither can the possibility of downloading pornography etc. Okay, so some of these things could be controlled in a similar way to parental monitoring of their children's internet activities, but it still doesn't feel right. Maybe it's also something to do with privaledge. Yes, most people 'out in the community' have internet access, but not everyone, so I don't see why those who've committed crime and are supposedly being punished should have guaranteed access to the internet. I see your point about keeping in contact with their children, and maybe helping them with their homework, but isn't seperation from their families part of the punishment for their crimes?

You may have noticed that my thoughts on this aren't very coherent, and it's much more of a gut instinct thing than well thought out ideas.


laura21 said...

It is felt it is their right to use the computer have access etc..people are fighting for that right, and saying it will be watched and monitored, but then people will be saying its violating their rights and next thing you know they will have free access. Simple as this u went away for a crime, i dont care what u did but no way should u have special pri ledges. I find it very,education, food,clothing,internet,etc my money paying for criminals to be cozy when non criminals suffer everyday not having the simple things to wonder we have repeat offenders. Prison Life hasnt been hard enough, what lesson does that teach...cant get computers in our schools lets put them in our prisons though.....just stupid.