Prisons & technology

“In Canada, those behind federal prison walls have long been deprived of most technological advancements in learning.  The current state of inmate access to information and technology is backward and obsolete.  Offenders have limited access to outdated stand-alone computers that still use floppy discs.  CSC runs Local-area Networks, which are equipped with software from the early 2000s, have no access to the internet, contain limited reference materials and have almost no technical capacity to support or facilitate eLearning of any kind.”
Office of the Correctional Investigator Annual Report 2019-2020

This is from Dr. Ivan Zinger’s introduction to his national investigation, “Learning Behind Bars”, that is included in that recent annual report.  He doesn’t limit his analysis of educational programming and vocational training in federal prisons to computers alone, but that is one primary example underscoring the difficulties offenders have with re-entry into the community.  These few paragraphs will focus on that basic technology.

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What does an ex-con do with a criminal record?  A person found guilty of an offence faces a penalty which may include incarceration, but once that price is paid, their obligation to society is satisfied.  While there are employer’s who will give people with records a second chance, most don’t hire ex-offenders; it’s doubtful someone looking for a job would find work at a McDonald’s or in corporate entry level positions, regardless of qualifications.

That’s why Jason Wang and joinfreeworld.com from last time (November 7) recruits ex-cons to become truck drivers.  There’s a severe shortage in the United States and Canada, and employers are willing to hire ex-con graduates from the organization’s program if they have the proper papers.  The plan is to introduce training in other trades as shortages arise…..welders, tool-dye makers are possible examples.

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Community initiatives don’t relieve Correctional Service of Canada of its responsibility to return inmates safely to the community.  That process must include adequate training to give these men and women a leg up in the job market considering the stigma of a criminal record.  Even so, CSC prohibited offenders coming into prison from including a personal computer in their property as of October in 2002.  Inmates who already had a computer were allowed to keep them, but at this point there are likely only a very few in the system.

Since the ban came into force, the correctional investigator maintains that “CSC has remained steadfast and impervious to expanding or updating inmate access to technology and information behind bars.”  And “in 2011/12 CSC outright rejected the Office’s (Correctional Investigator) recommendation to lift this ban and significantly expand the use of computers.  These decisions continue to be in effect today.” 

CSC does have a short supply of computers in prison libraries and other designated areas, but with limited access, obsolete and out-date software (i.e. floppy discs), and a network that is equally vintage.  There does not even seem to be a CSC policy for upgrading the hardware or software for technology in the institutions.

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True, there are technology-based programs initiated by CSC.  Desire to Learn (D2L) is a digital learning setting used by inmates in the community where resources are computer accessed.  Bath Institution’s Autodesk 3D Design has certified thirty students (as of last year) in 3D computer aided design, three institutions have a computer literacy training program which includes operating systems, hardware, software and networks, and an Ontario region plan allows offenders to upgrade their computer skills.  These are essential first steps to enhance an individual’s skills and knowledge in a competitive labour market, but they enlist only a small number of men and women, projects that are in indeterminate pilot stages.  These must be implemented in all institutions and accessible to all who want education and vocational training.

Excluding willing participants is simply sabotaging a “correctional service” to favour a “prison industry.”

Prisons. What are we getting……

…..FOR OUR MONEY?  Conservative governments feed the prison industry; they see that as a vote-getter.  Liberal governments burp the prison industry.  Okay, the new Liberal government in Ottawa has committed to reintroduce Bill C-22 which died when the recent election was called.  It’s been described as “a huge step in the right direction” despite its shortcomings, but reforming, rebuilding, reimagining the justice system isn’t a high Liberal priority.  Doesn’t serve to yield to reason or to appear too progressive.  Same goes for provincial penal systems.

Community safety is politicized.

One school of thought seems to say that community safety means putting the bad guys away, and if that doesn’t straighten them out, then put them away again.  The flip side thinks that community safety makes prisons and jails responsible for helping offenders become law-abiding citizens.  We get a little bit of both.  Do penal systems feel forced to balance their response to political masters with conflicting preferences?

As things are, if the people we elect, appoint, and employ aren’t taking action to get better results, then it’s left to the public to force change and/or to take on the job for itself.

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There can be three perspectives to approach the prison industry we now have.  One was addressed last time with the “Choosing Real Safety” declaration that argues the path forward is in doing what is necessary to keep people out of the justice system in the first place and further, to divert offenders to constructive alternatives when they come into conflict with the law.  Don’t keep people in jail.  Don’t put people in prison.  That’s a big step toward improving community safety but it doesn’t address what happens to the lives of the men and women whose crimes warrant incarceration.

Another look centers on the failure of our prisons to give inmates the substantive means to turn their lives around after release and avoid ending up back behind bars.  There’s the half-way house system, the John Howard Society, CoSA for ex-sex offenders, and other resources in the community, too many underfunded with long waiting lists.  Significantly important is getting a job that pays a true living wage.  Criminal records close most doors.  TheFieldPodcast.com episode of August 10 this year, “Reimagine your future with Jason Wang” takes a look at a program through joinfreeworld.com, “a tech enabled non-profit that aims to end generational poverty and recidivism by accelerating economic mobility for returning citizens.”  It offers a pathway to economic freedom.

Thirdly is the frontal assault on the prison industry to reform what it is into what it was always intended to be…..a correctional service.  Dozens of groups and organizations, along with at least hundreds of individuals, persist in a worthy labour that makes incremental inroads towards a goal that always seems so distant.  A novel proposal from FreeWorld’s Jason Wang is to make prisons success factories, rated and financed for their achievements and not their failures.  Imagine, getting paid and rated on how well an assigned task is accomplished!

Whatever the means, the work goes on.