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"Prisoners should join the PC brigade" by Erwin James, The Guardian

17th September 2007

Why is it that most of our prisons are denying prisoners the right to have computers in their cells?

Quite rightly people in prison are denied access to a great many of the privileges that people on the outside take for granted, but the denial of the right to a PC "in possession" should not be one of them.

Being computer literate is a vital requirement for so many areas of everyday activity these days. When it comes to getting on in life, in education, vocational training, jobs, careers or even just social communication - in the digital age anyone lacking PC skills is guaranteed to lag behind their computer literate brethren.

The main argument against computers in prison cells is "security" - the assumption being, I guess, that if they were allowed such a facility people in prison could not be trusted not to "abuse the privilege". There is no reason however why suitable security procedures could not be set in place to ensure appropriate use. Where there is a will there is a way. Or perhaps it is the will that is lacking, too many prison governors fearing that computers in cells will "send the wrong message?"

A few months after I started writing my column, A Life Inside, for the Guardian some seven years ago, I asked the governor of the prison I was in if I could have a word processor sent in by supportive friends.

"Oh no," he said after a sharp intake of breath. "The public wouldn't like that."

I wasn't sure how exactly they would find out, and if they did I could always hope that there were some who would see it as an aid to a successful reintegration into society if I ever were to be released.

"But word processing is a transferable work skill," I said, "essential for a (ahem) writer." He still wasn't convinced.

"We've got to think about the climate out there," he said pointing towards the local townsfolk. And that was the end of the matter.

Yet in a previous higher security category prison, the governor had positively encouraged not only access to word processors, but also to computers. Many prisoners I knew there had been allowed to have laptops for use in their cells handed in by family or friends who could afford it.

Forward thinking

There was an element of unfairness on those whose supporters could not afford such an expense - but at least the governor was trying to be forward thinking.

Instead of looking forward now however, too many governors, perhaps with the tacit agreement of the government, are turning their backs on what should be an obvious practical use of prison time.

With ever increasing numbers of people in prison living with literacy and general educational deficiencies and overcrowding placing unprecedented demand on the ever limited resources of the prison system, never has there been a better time to provide prisoners with computers, in their cells, and to ensure fairness and equality, why not meet the cost?

It might not be so expensive. Currently prisons provide televisions for the vast majority of prisoners to enjoy in their cells at a cost of around £50.00 per unit. That's around $100.00 at current exchange rates.

Well why doesn't somebody from the prison service get in touch with the OLPC - the One Laptop Per Child association? The OLPC, a USA based non-profit organisation, is currently promoting a quiet revolution in computer accessibility by attempting to ensure that all children, particularly those from underdeveloped countries, have access to a laptop.

If all goes according to plan the computer in question, the XO-1, will soon be available for under $100.00. The idea is that governments purchase the laptops and issue impoverished children one each.

The computer is of a rugged construction, heat and water resistant - ideal therefore for the unpredictability of prison life. And in case there is a fear that prisoners might try to access inappropriate internet sites (that is if governors were prepared to go a step further and allow internet access) - fear not. The OLPC has introduced built-in filters.

The obstacles in the way of successful reintegration for prisoners once they have been released are many, not least of which is simply being a convicted criminal.

A chance to learn how to use a computer effectively while in prison might just provide a step up so that other possibilities come into view. Denying prisoners' access to technology for vague and untenable reasons is a sad failure on the part of the prison system.

It might not be popular with "the public" to begin with, but we could do worse than start a new prison initiative - the OLPP - One Laptop Per Prisoner. It would be much more constructive use of taxpayers money and prisoners' time than in-cell television and could change the direction of future penal philosophy.


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