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.

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  1. Why don’t they block cell access in prisons? Would seem to be a bit of a security problem, if you ask me. If restaurants can do it, not sure why prisons can’t.

    1. As strange as this may sound, the FCC doesn’t permit active jamming of cell phone signals for any reason. Only the owner of the spectrum in question may emit electromagnetic radiation in that frequency arrange above a certain power threshold.

      You could lock up the prisoners in Faraday cages.

      1. Okay, how about blasting the prison cells with EMP every day?

        1. Couldn’t they just gouge out their eardrums? Problem solved.

          1. Wow, that’s awfully harsh. Why not just surgically adhere their fingers together?

            1. That would be cruel, not to mention unusual.

              1. Not really.

        2. It’d be a lot easier to simply demand the call detail records from the cell phone provider, not to mention be legal. There’d be a lot of data to sift through though.

          1. Is EMP dangerous to human health?

            1. Depends on whether you have a pacemaker or anti-epilepsy implant or not.

              1. Oh, good point. They’ll need to be in the special non-EMP area, then.

        3. how about blasting the prison cells with EMP every day?

          Every day? Do it once, do it right, do it with a nuclear weapon. Ya gets a twofer.

      2. Actually the FCC is starting to budge on this. California is testing a program to jam calls from prison grounds, except for calls from preapproved phones.

    2. Same thing would interfere with the cell phones of prison staff, visitors, contractors, lawyers, etc.

      1. Doesn’t have to be the whole prison, of course.

      2. Almost every jail/prison I’ve ever visited prohibits anyone–visitors, staff, attorneys, etc–from bringing a cell phone on the premises. How consistently that is enforced depends. Hell at the Fulton Co. jail here in Atlanta an inmate managed to smuggle in a pistol.

  2. Wha?

    It’s *prison*.

  3. Awesome.

    google maps+felons+facebook+foursquare. Can’t wait!

    1. That was my thought as well. Not to mention the Arab Spring was facillitated by cell phones/social media… simultaneous riots in dozens of prisons would be mighty interesting indeed.

    2. Next thing you know, they’ll be using Twitter to coordinate delightful flashmob musical dance routines in the mess hall.

  4. Is it a prison if you can communicate with people from the outside? Might as well make house arrest a priority in determining sentences then.

    1. Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

  5. “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.”

    Better he should go back to shiving guards and raping the new guy in the gang shower?

    1. It’s games or rape? Nice.

      1. No compfy chair?

  6. Real punishment = dial up

    1. That would be great. Give them all a laptop and a 28K connection.

      1. With AOL.

        1. I know you people don’t have a constitution, but we do. Cruel and unusual punishment is illegal here.

  7. 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.

    Maybe we should be wondering how someone in prison gets a thousand dollars.

    1. Con’s old lady leaves an envelope on the guard’s car someplace.

    2. Selling cell phones, duh.

  8. I got to talk with a convict who managed the law library of his prison. He was more thankful for the lexis-nexis connection that the facility allowed than for oxygen. Prior to that, book research had all the inefficiency of book research, plus limited books, plus inmates would rip pages out of books.

    Then one dude figured out how to hack the lexis to get pron. Warden cut off the lexis for a while to remedy the hack. Apparently, the inmate became very accident prone during that time.

    1. The offline dvd/blueray database of Lexis/Nexis is available.

    2. Due to the resulting blindness of his earlier activities, I’m sure.

    3. Years ago, I had an inmate call me at work (wrong number), so I spent the afternoon conferencing in and out various people he wanted to talk to.

  9. I provide IT support for a client who used to participate in work training programs for inmates in Kansas.

    Allowing offline access to the general population wouldnt make me blink. I freguently cached websites of requested information to external drives for transport to the facility. And that was with the approval of the programs local administration.

    Allowing direct internet access I am leary off. Filtration and security provisions just wont work with these guys at all.

    I’m actually against allowing any direct internet access within prison facilities at all, for prisoners, guards, and administration.

    1. Well I should correct myself. I’m against direct access due to the way the incarcerated populations are mixed at this time.

  10. A) depends on the crime. Some of them were removed from society for a good reason. They shouldn’t be given access to further victimize society.
    B) assuming they don’t fit Into that category than they need to purchase their own equipment and service, tech support, etc. I don’t want to pay for it.

    1. Tech support. Yeah … that’s the ticket!

  11. The daily paper and access to snail mail should suffice.

    1. Many inmates would gladly give up the daily paper if they had occasional access to this.

  12. Great, another pro-criminal blog from REASON- THE LIBERAL LIBERTARIAN MAGAZINE.

    Seriously, if you love criminals so much why not turn your home into a halfway house? Or better yet, let’s give the entire city of Oakland, California to the criminals.

    Or better yet, why not a criminal kibbutz in Oregon? Yup, just dump the criminals in the middle of nowhere, give them the tools to survive, and let’s see if they reinvent society or kill each other.

    1. I do believe california being given oven to criminals has allready been accomplished.

      Are you proposing Oakland be set aside as a sancuary for law abiding people?

      1. I, for one, think teaching criminals how to bake is a GREAT idea.

        1. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea with Sweeny Todd, though.

    2. Stop calling yourself a libertarian, you dishonest jackass.

    3. The day a majority of prisoners are not incarcerated for victimless crimes is the day I’ll become a law and order libertarian, until then….


    4. Fuck off, dipshit.

    5. I follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.” That includes prisoners.

      You might end up being a prisoner someday, especially as much as you love guns.

  13. This is really interesting, but not entirely thought through because it presents knowledge as a benign force that offers only status as an educated person, which totally neglects the raw tidal power of self guided learning.

    I’m guessing that in prison libraries, the catalogues are highly sanitised. I imagine there are mainly authors like Adam Smith or John Locke available, writers who reinforce perfectly the concept of the ideal American who from principle, pays their taxes, votes republican and keeps their lawn perfectly edged to placate the wrath of their neighbours. This ideal is unlikely to resinate with the world view of any criminal.

    No doubt prison educators could pour the minds of auto didactic prisoners into a mould reminiscent of a republican free market capitalist, but what about when they seek out the counter arguments to what they Interpret from the sanitised texts.

    It’s inevitable that when people are being repressed, controlled or marginalised they are more likely to be drawn to radical writers like marx / hegel or John Ruskin, which may avail to them the knowledge that their imprisonment is a corollary of the education denied to them growing up and the systemic oppression of working class people. It only takes one capable learner to synthesise radical knowledge and inspire others.

    knowledge is inherently subversive, Instead of smuggling contraband drugs maybe they would be smuggling contraband e-books on flash drives, I wonder.

    Don’t think that just because a prisoner has been incarcerated because of a stupid desperate decision they must be of below average intelligence? A human being of average intelligence has the potential to accomplish extraordinary things.

    Do you think education in its self is healing because I would disagree. I think subjective learning tends to lead to people seeking out the arguments that best reinforce their conditioned understanding.

    The authorities do not want black prisoners for instance researching people like Fred Hampton who may inspire them to action but how can it be ethically argued to deny access to this type of knowledge, would this censorship lead to a formation of ‘book police’ and how would their authority manifest in the outside world? Would the prison service commission the writing of web blocking software that the authorities would surely love to use on the rest of society if they thought they could get away with it?

    The authorities would prefer prisoners stick to the stereo type decided for them, so they cary on relying on soporific drugs and the drugs industry to stay controlled, because if they ever really woke up to the inhumanity of the system and if they ever learnt the language of assertiveness, then the fog of submission may dissipate and empower them in a way that would be unstoppable.

    This highlights the platitudes offered when prison authorities are pressed on rehabilitation. They do not have the skill or infrastructure to rehabilitate Americas prison population, they just want to be able to manage them, but this leads to the sort of dystopic society we see emerging today when thousands of inmates are brutally institutionalised and then released into the community which they have no understanding of.

    The purpose of these types of discussions is to distract law abiding citizens who pay for prisons in their taxes so that we mistakenly believe that the authorities know what they are doing and have a handle on these problems but the truth is that everything is chaos.

    If we as a society decide that prison is a suitable punishment for an offender then we have to factor in the costs associated with taking rehabilitation seriously. Prisoners should be sleeping for 8 hours a day and no more, the rest of the time they need to be in supervised education and psychical exercise to the point of exhaustion whilst working with discipline and routine and be made to write about how they understand the consequences of their actions and how empathy for their victims will be a fundamental condition for parole as well as intensive psychotherapy. Then perhaps they can move on to working in the community as a form or restorative justice and perhaps the community also needs to be educated on how we can integrate reformed inmates back into society.

    Only when we tackle the root causes of crime (poverty) with out failing back on the predictably failing strategies of retribution over rehabilitation can we hope create a better society with out crime.

    1. Only when we tackle the root causes of crime (poverty)


      1. I’m actually all for the dismantling of the welfare state and ending the monopoly of public education.

        1. I consider myself a bit of a hard-assed libertarian when it comes to the welfare state, but I have some ambivalence about “dismantling the welfare state”. Basically because there are people – eg mentally handicapped – who cannot function at a level that permits them to survive.

          When it comes to people who are physically and mentally capable, however, I tend to the “work or starve” camp.

          1. You know who else put people in work (and/) or starve camps?

    2. “Only when we tackle the root causes of crime (poverty of character)”

      Fixed it for ya

    3. “I’m guessing that in prison libraries, the catalogues are highly sanitised. I imagine there are mainly authors like Adam Smith or John Locke available, writers who reinforce perfectly the concept of the ideal American who from principle, pays their taxes, votes republican and keeps their lawn perfectly edged to placate the wrath of their neighbours.”

      No, because most of the books are donated and most of the donations come from liberals.

  14. “Access to information gives inmates the opportunity to make informed decisions about their futures. It allows them to reconsider past ideas and decisions,”


    Seriously, I care not one way or the other, but shit man, that was funny. I’m sure that’s what they’d use such access for… /;)

    But then again, I’m probably being overly cynical (with reality what is is and all).

    1. what “IT” is…

      Proofreading, how does it work?

  15. Yes, we should let prisoners get online — to work 16 hours a day. Right now China is killing the U.S. in gold farming. They will be able to buy every square inch of Azeroth within the decade, and all the sad fat poor Americans will have to migrate back to Everquest.

    1. I find merit in this idea of using prisoners to conduct electronic global economic warfare.

  16. Sheriff Joe would provide them with two soup cans strung between a long wire.

  17. Twitter posts from prisoners:

    HLECTER: Hair in my swill again 🙁 – what I wouldn’t give for some fava beans with Chianti.

    BIRDMANALCATRAZ: LOL, I’m tweeting, get it? Fly away, little birds!

    MANINIRONMASK: Anyone know a good welder? I’m sweating like a pig in this thing.

    MALCOLM_LITTLE: Getting mocked for my last name . . . need to think of something cooler . . .

    JVALJEAN: Alors, gotta go to work, those rocks won’t bust themselves.

  18. We are far too lenient with prisoners to begin with. A system like this would be preferable:…

  19. If the incidents of sexual assaults are down in America because of easy access to pornography but remain consistent or scale upwards in prison because of no access to pornography. . . .

  20. Criminals are isolated from society to protect non-criminals…not because they need to be punished or “rehabilitated”.

    Allowing them access to society via internet or any other means simply negates part or all of the reason they’re put into prison. Government is failing their basic task by allowing this to continue.

  21. It is time to bring America’s prisoners online! Really a good article, thank you for sharing, I recommend a good site for you

  22. make the prisoner on line? may be crazy…

  23. The “inmates” should be so tired form working that the phone and the internet would be less preferable than sleep.

    Chain gangs, stamping out parts and laundry-food prep and farming. 12 hours a day and for every day you miss two get added to the release date. For every infraction during sentenced time an extra week to up to a month, over seen by a judge and a panel.

    Jail needs to be more work than the real world.

  24. The “inmates” should be so tired form working that the phone and the internet would be less preferable than sleep.

    Chain gangs, stamping out parts and laundry-food prep and farming. 12 hours a day and for every day you miss two get added to the release date. For every infraction during sentenced time an extra week to up to a month, over seen by a judge and a panel.

    Jail needs to be more work than the real world.

  25. Another take on the prisoner communication thing –

    If you want to know what the prisoners are up to, then don’t shut down their communications – hear and read their communications.

  26. Here are the two real reasons inmates are not allowed access to cell phones and internet:

    1. The companies who provide phone services for inmates in prison do not want to lose their business. They make money by charging exorbitant rates, as much as $5 for a 15-minute call, to inmates who make no more than $1 or $2 a day, if they have jobs in prison at all. Cell phone or internet availability in prison would put them out of business, so they have constructed this entire mythology (by feeding exaggerated stories to the media) about the crisis of contraband cell phones being everywhere in prisons. Think about it: how would an inmate charge the phone (most cells don’t have outlets); pay the monthly bill, and pay to get the phone in the first place (they are poor, their families are poor, and they don’t have cash on them in prison. How would they find a place to talk on them without being heard or seen? If they do get one they’re not going to have it for long before it runs out of credit or power or before a CO takes it.

    2. WE don’t want inmates to have internet access, not because it’s a security threat, but because the things they use it for will prove to be so completely normal that it will force us to rethink everything we believe about prisons and actually do something about our incarceration problem. Seriously, give them two half-hour sessions a week, in the library, (more if they sign up for a job preparation or computer skills class) with a moderately restrictive firewall, monitor their email, and they get a disciplinary report or additional criminal charges if they do anything bad. It will work fine.

  27. What about the opportunities for on-line businesses?

  28. Could we continue to make it an even cushier experience to “do the time” after the crime? Good grief! Pretty soon America’s Federal and State prison systems will be cossetting these inmates in the same manner in which ICE babies the illegal immigrants sneaking into our country.
    When their self-governance doesn’t work, our laws ought to!
    Donnez Moi la break!
    In theory, Libertarians espouse the concept of individual responsibility. In practical terms however, the importance of self-policing is conveniently dispensed with when it rams head-long into the economic, free market concepts of Laissez Faire!
    Paradoxical to say the least!
    I support industry, businesses, and a free-er market.
    What I refuse to support is giving aid,comfort, and electronic gadgetry to those whose judgements and actions have been in utter defiance of the laws of this land.

    1. Let’s just say you’re doing 1 year in prison. You stole some makeup from a drugstore and pushed a police officer to the ground when he apprehended you. You are now a “violent offender”. You are a single mom with two kids and only a high school diploma. Tell us how you should be treated while in prison and what aid or opportunities you should be given when you are released.

  29. This entire article gave me a headache. It’s all based on the premise that we should continue to lock up the American people for frivolous laws and regulations. Here’s an idea.. btw, I believe it came from the Constitution AND the Bible, why not offer Liberty instead of Law? Let’s lock up those who commit physical (not being too general) harm to another individual. Those individuals never get out! So there is no need for all this PC environment for someone who has no respect for another human to wit they would do physical harm. Talk about slashing a budget. Entire prison system solved!

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