The Need for Computer Education Behind Bars

By Nick Sizemore

Have you ever sat and marveled at the technological advancements in written communication? Never mind what's been done since the beginning of time, having gone from cave paintings and tomb inscriptions to the invention of papyrus to Gutenberg's printing press. Just look at how far we've come in the past two decades.

In the past 20 years everything has become electronic or digital, sent instantly with the click of a button or mouse. In fact, a recent study by the post office found that the average American household receives only one personal letter every seven weeks. It's amazing to think that merely twenty years ago if someone wanted to correspond with another they actually had to pick up a pen.  Image courtesy wallpaperdev.com

Now, I'm not the type of person who believes such advancements are ushering in society's doom, however, I do see one serious side effect: without computers or computer education behind bars, over two million people across the nation remain stuck in a technologically ‘medieval’ society.

Out of that population of over two million, most have had some type of computer experience before incarceration. Though there is a large percent that have never seen a computer in their lifetime due to fifteen or twenty years of straight incarceration. Many of these inmates will soon be released into a world where life literally revolves around the computer. A lack of computer knowledge renders them socially and economically inept. Essentially, a generation of computer illiterates has been created that will be forced to ‘catch up’ with society while maintaining a minimum wage job at best. This is a daunting task to say the least.

Therefore, the need for computer education behind bars is quite clear. At the very least, basic computer introduction, instruction, and keyboarding classes should be offered. But why stop there? There is a plethora of educational computer software from basic high school educational materials to college-level courses or even foreign language courses which can be put to use. The automated learning opportunities are almost limitless. I find myself wanting to say, "And there's an app for that," but I'm not sure what exactly that means.

To go a step further, high school and college courses are now offered free online. The opportunity to earn a high school diploma would do away with what seems to be in the eyes of society, a ‘meaningless’ GED, and instantly would elevate one's educational currency in the workforce with a more appealing resume. College courses online would eliminate society's complaint about inmates receiving a ‘free’ education while the rest of the free world struggles to pay for one. Free education online is/could be an equal opportunity for all, both inside and outside of prison. All that would be needed is a quantitative method of ascertaining learning since these free courses are not part of a degree-granting program.

Obviously, there are some security kinks to work out before inmates are granted online access. But why dismiss the idea so readily? Certainly a number of the big computer conglomerates have the capabilities to develop a program geared specifically toward granting prisoners limited online access to educational websites. Even in the Federal Bureau of prisons inmates have access to TRULINCS, a monitored email service.

If a company would take the leap, they could improve the lives of millions of prisoners and their families. Such a program could even be adopted by departments of corrections across the nation and be used in their existing rehabilitation programs. Of course, this would create a need to establish a contract with said computer company, in order to supply computers, programs, and maintenance. After all, catering to prisoners is big business and this would be a win-win situation for all involved. The computer companies would make money, prison administrators would save money, and prisoners would gain a more advanced education.

A long term investment in computers would save money by not having to replace worn-out and outdated books and materials on a regular basis. But more importantly, funds would be saved by lowering recidivism rates. Education has proven to reduce recidivism substantially and cost-effectively. This is a benefit to both inmates and society. It would provide a higher standard of education, one that will eradicate the generation of computer illiterates by providing all the necessary tools for one to keep pace with society and become a truly productive citizen in the long run.

Installing computers in prisons is not a novel idea. In fact, there are some states what already utilize them to teach basic keyboarding skills or for the purposes of communication such as email or Skype visits. Even New Mexico state prison allows prisoners to attend college via computers. If it works for some states, why shouldn't it work for all states?

The reluctance by the rest of the nations' prison administrators to instituting computer education lies in the debate on security. Unfortunately, I feel that while self-evident, without research, the benefits of computer education behind bars will not be realized until those security measures are met and society embraces such a bold idea. Therefore, the discourse must go on. In order for a program to be fruitful, all the obstacles must be surmounted.