When thinking about those who use new media, we often bring to mind images of relatively young and well off people who access social media using trendy laptops or stylish smartphones. However, there is a group that is slowly gaining access to blogs and sites like Facebook and Twitter that don’t fit these images. This group is made up of people who are incarcerated in the US prison system.
You may be surprised to learn that prisoners have ways to create the user generated content that makes up Web 2.0. A famous example of “blogging behind bars” is the currently imprisoned rapper Lil Wayne who makes semi-regular updates to his website. Since he does not have access to the Internet, the entertainer dictates his posts using the regular mail system which are typed into his blog for him by an assistant. However, several prisons have systems in place that give inmates more direct access to electronic communication. Since black people make up a disproportionate number (40%) of those behind bars, efforts to grant prisoners access to the Internet will provide a public voice for many blacks who have been lost to the prison system.
One of the systems that allows prisoners to send electronic messages is called the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (also called TRULINCS). It is managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and provides email communication without granting access to the internet. A prisoner given access to TRULINCS can create a list of people that he or she wants to contact. If this list is approved by the staff, then each person on the contact list has to agree to exchange electronic messages with the prisoner. Every person on the contact list who agrees to this will be able to send and receive email messages from the prisoner.
While the TRULINCS system provides email communication, some prisons are going further by granting limited Internet access. Last year, the Kansas Department of Corrections moved to install kiosks in prisons that provide online banking, email, and video conferencing. This was done to reduce the amount of paper created by the regular mail system and also lower that amount of time it takes to screen physical packages. Like TRULINCS, taxpayer dollars are not used to fund this online access. The inmates pay for it themselves when they use the kiosks, and the profits go into a fund to buy things like books for the prison libraries.
While some argue that giving prisoners Internet access is a luxury that should not be granted for people being punished, others insist that it can help rehabilitate the incarcerated and help them prepare for a return to society. Internet access can be structured as a reward for good behavior that is taken away when an inmate violates the rules of the prison. Also, prisoners can gain a sense of community by having easier access to family and friends. Finally, the ability to skillfully use computers and the internet are vital capabilities in the modern world. Allowing prisoners to use the internet gives them the ability to hone skills that may make it easier for them to find a job once released.
If more prisoners have access to the web, then they may follow the path of Michael Santos who blogs from his cell in federal prison about reforming the system. Santos uses his blog posts to describe a world that few readers of Black Web 2.0 know through direct experience, but I imagine that many know someone who experiences it every day.