The phone call Grace Bauer received from her son Corey, an inmate in Maryland’s Roxbury state prison, was one of desperation. An incident with other inmates the previous day made him fear that his life was in danger. “I had to call the prison and ask for help,” she recalled. Because her communication with Corey is limited to scheduled phone calls, Bauer could do nothing but wait anxiously to find out if her son was OK. “I went 24 hours without knowing if the prison took steps to keep him safe,” she said.
Even in the age of Facebook and Snapchat, most prisons and jails still rely on the telephone as the primary method of contact between inmates and their families. That’s begun to change, however, with a growing number of facilities adopting more immediate means of communication such as email from handheld devices, providing a way for inmates to stay in touch more regularly with family members. It’s a shift that Bauer, a longtime advocate for juvenile justice reform, welcomes. “If [Corey] had access to email I may have known right away that he had been moved to protective custody rather than having to go to bed worried to death,” she said.
For Chris Grewe, CEO of APDS (America Prison Data Systems), which provides prison-specific tablet computers to correctional facilities, email is just the tip of iceberg when it comes to bringing technology to those who are incarcerated. “We’re looking to provide education, rehabilitation and vocational training,” he said. “We’ve got Khan Academy [lectures] and other kinds of really robust educational materials. We replace recreational reading libraries, which are typically just a handful of donated books, with access to tens of thousands of titles in multiple languages.”
Proponents of email and mobile devices in correctional facilities believe this kind of technology has the potential, if deployed wisely, to drive down recidivism rates. A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in educational programming were 43% less likely to return to prison than those who did not. A 2012 report by the Vera Institute of Justice reinforced previous research by detailing how regular contact with family members can reduce the risk of inmates becoming re-incarcerated once they’re released.
Bauer sees these and other benefits in her work as head of Justice for Families, an advocacy group for families with an incarcerated loved one. While it pains her that families have to pay for email services, she said “those that have access to it have been really happy with it.” Speaking of a mother who’s able to send pictures to her son, Bauer said the woman felt more strongly “like her son was still a part of the family.”