Internet Access Is a Human Right. Should Prisoners Have It?

Allowing supervised access to the internet could help with rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.
Allowing supervised access to the internet could help with rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

By Christopher Zoukis

Internet and computer access dominates most people’s lives to a major degree in many countries around the world. More than 45 percent of the world population has an internet connection at home — that’s fast approaching 4 billion people.

In the United States, 75 percent of people are connected. Most developed countries can also access the internet outside the home in work places, schools and libraries, and many people can connect through multiple devices. We’ve never been more connected, with access to so many resources, and so able to communicate with each other. From accessing free online university courses, to being able to keep in touch with old friends or faraway family, it’s hard to imagine not having regular access to the people in our lives, not to mention limitless entertainment in the forms of apps, games and videos.

Internet access is now considered so fundamental that the United Nations declared internet access basic a human right in 2011, affirming that connectivity is importance for democracy, freedom of expression, communication and government transparency. While this is a nonbinding resolution, it does reflect the essential nature of the internet, and how fundamental it is to our everyday being.

But not everyone has the same degree of access, despite the increasing importance of digital literacy and the recognition of it as a human right in our increasingly globalized world. Populations with limited access include those living in developing nations where internet usage is much lower than in the United States, people living in areas without the necessary infrastructure, and other groups, such as those currently incarcerated in the U.S.

Most prisoners in the U.S. have no access to the internet. Some institutions even punish inmates whose families post online on their behalves. Some prisoners use outside people to assist them to post blogs and opinion pieces, by dictating them over the phone, or sending letters to friends or family. But others gain access to the internet illegally, through contraband cell phones. In some cases, prisoners have been harshly punished for these activities, slapped with extra years in detention. In one extreme case, a South Carolina inmate named Tyheem Harris was handed 37 years in solitary for making 38 posts to Facebook — 23 more years than his actual sentence.

Some prisons do allow inmates to access email on secure, private intranets. Some also allow limited access to tablets for a variety of purposes, such as listening to music or delivering educational programming — certainly a step in the right direction. But time is often limited on tablets and other devices, and fees for using them can cost prisoners, or their families, a great deal of money.

Given how connected the world has become, should prisoners have more internet and computer access? There are hesitations around this issue for those that envision internet access as a potential free-for-all that could give rise to an increase in contraband, access to pornography, threats to victims or engagement in digital crimes. But these fears should be tempered by the fact that digital technologies can be custom designed for each purpose, and access to them strictly monitored and controlled in secure environments.

Allowing greater internet access could give prisoners the opportunity to broaden perspectives, connect with the wider world in meaningful ways, and learn essential digital skills that exist in the world waiting for them upon release. It could also avail them of important learning resources including college and vocational courses and language skills. The internet is a useful tool for self-improvement.

Granting access could contribute to more educated and skilled inmates, which has been shown to reduce recidivism. Done right, there is a potential to use this life-enriching technology without the need for increasing staff or expenditures for things like physical classrooms, materials or teachers. It would help prepare prisoners to be reintroduced to society by giving them basic workforce-ready familiarity with the online world, leaving them less likely to reoffend. The internet could be a useful rehabilitative aid to improve prisoners and prison communities, with the trickle-down effect of having more educated and equipped people being released into society.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com