Letter: Incarcerated juveniles should have the right to access the internet

by Wendy Sawyer, June 20, 2017

Next Tuesday, California’s Senate Human Services Committee will consider a bill (AB 811) that would give incarcerated juveniles access to computer technology and the internet. The Prison Policy Initiative submitted a letter in support of the bill, outlining the benefits of internet access for incarcerated people. We also highlight how this legislation stakes new ground by proposing internet access, rather than the proprietary closed platforms currently used by prisons and jails, which allow private companies to extract exorbitant user fees from the state’s poorest families.

June 20, 2017
The Honorable Mike Gipson
California State Capitol
P.O. Box 942849
Sacramento, CA 94249-0064

Dear Assemblymember Gipson,

I write on behalf of the Prison Policy Initiative to express strong support for Assembly Bill 811, concerning the rights of incarcerated juveniles to access computer technology and the internet.

The Prison Policy Initiative is a research and advocacy organization comprised of national experts in various criminal-justice related fields. As part of our work, we have developed considerable expertise concerning telecommunications services used by incarcerated people, and have recently pursued several research projects on new technologies such as video visitation 1 and electronic messaging.2

AB 811 is laudable because it promotes a balanced and thoughtful policy of emphasizing the humanity of incarcerated juveniles by providing additional avenues for communication and education. In fact, as more functions of government, business, and education migrate to the internet, connectivity is critical to the well-being of incarcerated people and their chances of success upon reentry. We believe that AB 811 would benefit incarcerated juveniles in the following areas:

  • Media literacy. As the amount of information on the internet grows at staggering rates, the ability to analyze and evaluate the reliability of such content becomes paramount to being a wise consumer of news and data.3
  • Education. Lifelong learning is now closely connected to technology and internet access. Not only is a great deal of educational content accessible online, but even programs in traditional classroom settings increasingly expect students to arrive already equipped with basic technological skills.
  • Maintaining family connections. Because most incarcerated juveniles will return to their communities of origin, maintaining meaningful relationships with friends and family is critical for successful reentry.4 Technology such as video streaming, email, and social networking apps can greatly aid this process, especially when family members are separated by substantial geographical distances.
  • Employment. Finding employment and succeeding in a job are both becoming more dependent on an individual’s familiarity with technology. Because formerly incarcerated people are already at a profound disadvantage when seeking employment, it is critical that they leave confinement with knowledge and skills that will compensate (albeit only partially) for this liability.
  • Personal finance. People who are incarcerated are disproportionately low-income,5 meaning that they have an acute need for personal financial management skills. Technology enhances personal finance in several ways. For example, people who can easily access transactional data (e.g., online account histories) are more likely to have a firm grasp on their personal financial situation. In addition, the ability to use the internet for product research and price comparisons is an important tool to help consumers spend their money wisely.

AB 811 is also a notable milestone for the rights of justice-involved people because it specifically refers to internet access inside correctional facilities. Our research (which is focused on adult facilities, and therefore may overlook limited exceptions in the juvenile sector) indicates that prisons and jails reflexively prohibit any level of internet access, based less on reasoned policy decisions than fear of public misconceptions.6 Your legislation is a big step forward. As the Supreme Court remarked just this week: “While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace—the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general . . . and social media in particular.”7 As a society, we can no longer exclude incarcerated people from these important spaces simply due to undifferentiated fear.

It is important to note that new technologies are not completely absent from the correctional setting—to the contrary, there is a growth trend in computers and mobile devices being marketed specifically for use by incarcerated people. The problem, however, is that such technology is currently designed to only access proprietary closed platforms that typically allow customers to access communications services or digital content only upon payment of exorbitant user fees.

While we do not dispute the need for some level of security-related restrictions, wholesale prohibitions on internet access simply foster the predatory financial model that current products are built on. By seeking to remove this formidable barrier, AB 811 stakes out important ground in the movement to end mass incarceration.

The Prison Policy Initiative thanks you for your foresight in introducing this important piece of legislation. Please let me know how our organization can support this effort.

Sincerely,

Peter Wagner

 

Footnotes

  1. Bernadette Rabuy & Peter Wagner, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails (Jan. 2015). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/  ↩
  2. Stephen Raher, You’ve Got Mail: The promise of cyber communication in prisons and the need for regulation (Jan. 2016). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/messaging/  ↩
  3. See generally, Kaiser Family Foundation, “Key Facts: Media Literacy” (Fall 2003). Available at: https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/key-facts-media-literacy.pdf  ↩
  4. See generally, Bernadette Rabuy & Daniel Kopf, Separation by Bars and Miles: Visitation in state prisons (Oct. 20, 2015). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/prisonvisits.html  ↩
  5. Bernadette Rabuy & Daniel Kopf, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned (Jul. 9, 2015). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html  ↩
  6. For an older survey of related legal issues, see Titia A. Holtz, Reaching Out from behind Bars: The Constitutionality of Laws Barring Prisoners from the Internet, 6 Brook. L. Rev. 855 (2001-02).  ↩
  7. Packingham v. North Carolina, Case No. 15-1194, slip op. at 4-5 (U.S. Sup. Ct., Jun. 19, 2017) (quoting Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 868 (1997) (citation omitted)).  ↩

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