Criminal Justice

You've Got Jail

Is it time to bring America's prisoners online?


In December 2010, a local Fox News affiliate broke the news that a heavily tattooed Oklahoma man had been posting candid photos of himself on Facebook. In one, he was dreamily licking an extremely lethal-looking knife. In another, he was showing off a bong made out of toilet paper rolls. In other words, pretty standard Facebook imagery, except that the man was a convicted murderer serving time in Oklahoma's Granite Reformatory, posting the photos from his jail cell using a contraband smartphone. 

In January 2011, The New York Times wrote about an incarcerated counterfeiter in Florida who was paying his debt to society by playing Farmville and Street Wars. A few months later, the Los Angeles Times reported that in California, a one-day test of a proposed system that can ferret out contraband phones intercepted more than 4,000 attempted calls, text messages, and efforts to access the Internet—all from a single prison. According to a press release issued by the bipartisan National Governors Association, prison inmates use cell phones to "engineer escapes, organize gang activity, threaten and kill witnesses, extort money and commit fraud, organize drug deals and riots, track the location of prison guards, and facilitate the trafficking of other contraband."

Like everyone else these days, prisoners are hungry for social connectivity, information, and a chance to prove their prowess at raising imaginary tomatoes. Contraband cellphones—often smuggled in by prison employees—reportedly go for as much as $1,000 apiece precisely because correctional facilities are such information-poor environments. Maybe we should be offering easier, legal ways for inmates to obtain information and communicate with the outside world. That would contradict the traditional isolationist approach to incarceration. But how well is the traditional approach working?

"The prison population is growing 13 times faster than the general population," Newt Gingrich pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 50 percent of the inmates who are released this year will be back inside prison walls within three years. What if, instead of exiling inmates from the outside world, from new technologies and information, the correctional system made a greater effort to offer monitored, secure, but more expansive access to new technologies, a legitimate alternative to contraband smartphones?

To an extent, the correctional system is already doing this. In February, for example, most federal prisons introduced TRULINCS, a closed email system that allows inmates to correspond with a limited number of pre-approved contacts. At five cents per minute, TRULINCS costs more than anyone has paid for online access since AOL charged by the hour. But if it's 1995 in America's prisons, that's still better than the Dark Ages.

"Access to information gives inmates the opportunity to make informed decisions about their futures. It allows them to reconsider past ideas and decisions," says Melissa Gilbert, branch librarian at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington state. "It's irresponsible and unrealistic to expect positive change, or to hold inmates accountable for their decisions and actions, if they aren't given adequate access to accurate and relevant information to support the behavioral changes our society is asking them to make."

According to Vibeke Lehmann, who served for 25 years as the coordinator of library services and education technology for Wisconsin's Department of Corrections before retiring in 2008, between 50 and 60 percent of prison inmates haven't graduated from high school. Both a 1991 study by New York's Department of Correctional Services and a broader 2001 study by the Correction Education Association suggest that inmates who earn GEDs or college degrees while incarcerated have lower recidivism rates than other prisoners. While the impact of prison library patronage on recidivism rates is less clear—"It's difficult to find proof, i.e., peer-reviewed studies, that libraries in prisons directly reduce the recidivism rate," Gilbert says—the prison library can be a gateway to more formal educational pursuits.

Libraries occupy a unique role in the prison universe. They're an official component of an extremely authoritarian institution, and yet they don't just tolerate autonomy but actually encourage it. In an environment where coercion is the default mode and compliance the goal, they hold out the possibility that an individual might plot his own course, make his own destiny. Naturally this makes them controversial—what if an inmate believes his destiny is to be the next Tony Soprano and uses library resources to pursue that end?—but it's also what gives them the power to improve inmates' lives.

In the outside world, information continues to get cheaper, more accessible, more timely and personalized. To a certain extent, prison libraries are taking advantage of these trends, but not as much as they could be. While many correctional facilities allocate funds for legal reference materials—Bounds v. Smith, a 1977 Supreme Court ruling, declares that the constitutional right to access to the courts compels prison administrators to provide inmates with "adequate law libraries"—they don't necessarily fund more general library materials. In Washington, for example, Gilbert reports that most of the funding for the state prison libraries comes from the Washington State Library rather than specific institutions themselves. In Maryland, says Glennor Shirley, library coordinator for the state's correctional facilities, funding for the development of general collections comes from the Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF), or revenues generated from inmate phone call fees and commissary purchases. "Budget deficits have resulted in more expanded use of the IWF for other prison programs, meaning less for everyone," Shirley explains. "The library budget has decreased as a result."

In theory, offline databases, ebooks, and limited access to various Internet resources could radically expand the amount of information prison libraries could offer their users. For inmates whose sentences are on the verge of ending, up-to-date information is especially crucial. They want to learn how to get housing, obtain a driver's license, restore credit, start a business, and more. Currently, it's a challenge for even the most robust prison libraries, with their limited space, staffs, and budgets, to offer much depth and currency on such a range of subjects when their collections are primarily paper-based.

A migration to digital information could deliver other benefits as well. If prisons started replacing printed books with ebooks, for example, there'd be fewer places for inmates to hide contraband and more space in environments where space is at a premium. Charging inmates for ebook readers and entertainment-oriented ebooks, the way prison commissaries already charge for TVs and radios, could make the system self-funding and even provide revenues that libraries could use to purchase more reference materials for institution-wide use. 

At least two companies already sell MP3 players designed specifically for correctional facilities, with proprietary kiosks that allow inmates to download songs. So far no similar system exists for ebooks. And while news stories about smartphone-equipped convicts make it sound as if Facebook access is as common in prison as face tattoos, actual computers are still fairly scarce in prison. In Maryland, for example, there are 23,000 inmates in the state's various facilities, and approximately 145 computers to serve them. "We need to prepare inmates for successful re-entry, and the reality is they need to learn technology," says Shirley. 

Creating products that can answer this need without compromising public safety may be a pretty big undertaking. But with 2.3 million inmates now doing time in America's jails and prisons, the market for such products is pretty big too. And unfortunately, it's only getting bigger. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato ( writes from San Francisco.