Technology is Changing US Prison Life

Technology is changing life inside US prisons...an inmate at a Georgia state prison ticks off the remaining days of his three-year sentence on his Facebook page, he has 91 digital ‘friends’. Like many of his inmates he plays FarmVille and Street Wars. He does it all on his Samsung smartphone, which he says he bought from a guard. He used the same phone to help organise a short-strike among inmates at several Georgia prisons late last year where they used technology to get their voices heard.

The techno-savvy prisoners texted, created e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, which included work stoppages with inmates at other prisons and used pseudonyms to allow them to share hourly updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with the outside world and did media interviews.

Prison officials have long battled illegal phone devices, yet with Internet access the stakes have changed. A prisoner now can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes. Prison security experts say that crimes such as gang violence and drug trafficking is increasing because inmates are able to be keep on with crime even as they serve time. This is where technology is not serving society. Terry L. Bittner, Director of security products, ITT Corporation (a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons) says, “The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison and is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”

In August last year, President Obama made it illegal to own a phone or a wireless device in a federal prison. Cellphones are prohibited in all state and federal prisons even for top corrections officials. Punishment for a prisoner found with one varies as in some states, it affects parole or in others it can result in new criminal charges. However, devices still find their way in and payments for cell phones range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the phone type and the service plan. Monthly fees are generally paid by inmates’ relatives. Some groups are encouraging prisons to embrace new technology while managing risks. David Fathi, Director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties says, “Inmates are more likely to successfully re-enter society if they maintain relationships with friends and families.”

In a world where hundreds of apps are introduced each day by developers hoping to tap new markets, a pool of prisoners with smart phones can seem an attractive new market, despite the implications; it has become another business opportunity. Prisoners like people outside of prison have become addicted to their phones; I guess it is easy to imagine if you had nothing but time on your hands. However, isn't that the purpose of being locked away in prison? to reflect on the crime that has been committed, not to play Farmville or ‘poke’ some-one on Facebook.

Photo Credit: Tim Pearce, Los Gatos