Justice Action has been campaigning for Computers in Cells since 1998, though the New South Wales government and the Department of Corrective Services has blocked any progress. This rejection of progress by the NSW government is based on misinformed security concerns, the ignorance of prison administration, and the decision of the NSW government to favour political point scoring over pragmatic policy making, to the detriment of prisoners and the broader community at large.
There is currently no provision of computers in individual cells in NSW or most prisons around the world. NSW Correctional Centres provide shared classrooms where inmates may access computers for limited number of hours under supervision provided they submit an ‘Offender Application for Access to Computers’ and agree to the ‘Guidelines for Offenders Using Computers’. Managers must ensure that “desktop computers are used for work, education, training and/or legal use”. Under Section 188.8.131.52, “the offender’s access to the desktop computer is to be withdrawn immediately” if supervision cannot be provided and often this means that access to computers is limited and that prisoners face educational setbacks. Meanwhile, most TAFE and university courses now require regular access to computers. A report by the Employment, Education and Training References Committee notes, “it is becoming increasingly common for enrolment into courses to be conditional on having access to a computer and in some instances, to a modem as well so that two-way communication will be possible”.
As a result of the inaccessibility of computers under the status quo, only 1.3% of NSW prisoners are engaged in higher education. This is a particularly significant problem because 60% of inmates in NSW did not complete year 10 in the first place. The onus for improving this situation lies squarely with government. Between 2003 and 2004, 39% of prisoners participated in courses offered by the Adult Education and Vocational Training Institute, showing a desire for self-improvement when the opportunity was available.
Considering the inadequacy of communal computer facilities and taking into account the success of the above examples, Justice Action proposes the provision of individual computers in cells for prisoners. These computers should be equipped with
● Email capability so that inmates may keep in touch with family, friends and teachers so that they may complete their learning and successfully reintegrate into society upon the completion of their incarceration
● Access to legal resources whether in the form of CD-ROMs or online resources such as Austli
● Programs vital to the inmate’s vocational or tertiary learning if study is being undertaken. The availability of such programs will also encourage further education among those who have yet to consider such a step.
● Access to web-based resources so that inmates may search for and apply for employment opportunities as they approach their release date.
Justice Action has already received a great deal of interest from organisations wishing to contribute to this project. The provision of computers will be at virtually no cost to the Department of Corrective Services NSW as these computers can be sourced from companies who regularly turn over their stock of computers or from other government departments. Furthermore, most computers whose hardware is less than five years old are compatible with the requisite software to maintain the security and efficient operation of this system (see 4.2 Software) and this provides a large scope from which computers can be taken. Such a model of supply also has applicability on the international stage due to the rapid replacement of computers at major companies.
One obvious concern with the implementation of such a program is that of security and abuse of the system. However, established software, such as Cyber PrisonPC, allows for easy surveillance and management of any unauthorised computer use while maintaining the educational benefits of computer access. PrisonPC promises a “centrally managed computing system, enabling custodial staff to manage all desktops from a single, isolated location” and desktops which are “resilient to any method of permanent user modification or unauthorised changes”.
With regards the applications of such software, PrisonPC includes:
● Complete office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, etc)
● PDF document viewer
● Educational software
● Games (solitaire, etc)
● Extensive online help
Furthermore, prisoners may also be given access to an approved list of websites and a secure email so that they may contact a restricted and monitored amount of people (such as their solicitor and family members), similar to their existing managed telephone access. Indeed, the current system used by the NSW Department of Education and Training to control prisoners’ access to Internet sources through the use of an intranet system that puts appropriate limits on the information prisoners can access online.
While Justice Action has considered and addressed various concerns arising from the proposed installation of computers in cells, we recognise that inmates may still abuse the system. In such an event, it is necessary that authorities recognise the principle of individual responsibility as opposed to collective responsibility, ensuring that only those inmates who abuse the system should be punished. Imposing punishments on the entire prison due to the transgressions of select prisoners will have the negative effect of setting back the educational aspirations of the entire prison community. In the event that abuses of the computers in cells system does occur, transgressors should be dealt with individually, allowing the other prisoners to enjoy the continued educational benefits proposed by the computer program.
It is essential that some formal principles about computer access for people in detention are immediately established, as this is basic to any serious attempt to nationally implement a computers in cells (CIC) program. The aim is to fully defend the CIC system against any abuses that could place the community, prisons or prison staff at risk.
By examining several cases where prisoners have abused computers, we have developed the ‘Gold Standards’ that all CIC programs should abide by. Through these ‘Gold Standards’ we additionally intend to pre-emptively address any security concerns relating to the implementation of computers in prisoners’ cells.
● Logging, Monitoring and Storage of each user’s session.
● Print Accounts ensure all printed material is monitored and linkable to a specific individual.
● Restricted Memory/Storage Devices guarantee that prisoners may only view material on staff approved devices. Prisoners are unable to upload material or view content that has not been approved.
● Email Restrictions mean prisoners may only email approved correspondents. Additionally, all email passes through a security filtration system monitored by staff. (Refer to section 4.2)
● Website Restrictions allow prisoners access to approved sites only.
● Enforced Curfews determine when computers automatically shut down.
● Regular Hardware Checks by prison staff ensure no tampering has occurred.
While the cost of providing a computer for each cell may seem prohibitive, the reality that this that this program would run a minimal short-term loss and quickly move into a position to actually save money for the Department of Corrective Services and the taxpayer (as will be discussed in 6.5 – Benefits of Cost and Morality for the state). As has been mentioned in 4.1 – Supply, numerous companies have already registered an interest in supplying free, used computers for such a program. Furthermore, in facilities such as the Nowra Prison in NSW, there is already wiring set up for the provision of computers for each prisoner – all that is required is the political will to take action.
The provision of individual computers for prisoners has numerous benefits. The immediate outcome, of course, is that personal computers can be used to minimise confrontation and disruption within the prison system. Furthermore, by granting prisoners access to legal resources this scheme can reduce bureaucratic clutter and promote a greater understanding by prisoners of how the law operates – providing a deterrent for future criminal activity. Meanwhile, in the long term this model also acts to lower recidivism. Boosting levels of prisoner education improves prisoner rehabilitation: a process which is not only beneficial for the prisoners, but also for the Department of Corrective Services which will have a smaller population of prisoners who re-offend to cater for.
Personal computers offer significant opportunities for prisoners – even if this is only to reduce boredom. As a result, the presence of a computer provides a major behavioural incentive for prisoners to behave and not abuse this privilege. The computer provides ease of access for communication with family as well as other simple distractions and prisoners will want to maintain this and so are less likely to risk their removal through inappropriate actions. All of this means that prison management will have another tool with which to control the prison population and maintain order.
Computers provide prisoners with access to legal resources to assist with their cases. For instance, prisoners are able to read and respond to briefs, and access transcripts and legal Acts which are available on CD-ROMs. Computers also provide access to online legal resources, such as those provided by the Australasian Legal Information Institution (Austlii). This information will assist prisoners in accessing evidentiary and other materials relied upon by the police in court cases without difficulty.
The first opportunity that personal computers offer for prisoners is the chance to improve computer literacy. Computer literacy is an increasingly vital requirement for everyday life; it significantly affects education, vocational training and career prospects. Very few jobs do not involve consistent interaction with a computer. By denying these skills, DCS is relegating ex-inmates to manual labour and similar arduous occupations. Furthermore, many female prisoners find aptitude with computers give them a great advantage when they returned home, allowing them to help their children with technical problems.
One of the keys to successfully rehabilitating prisoners into society is providing a set of relationships for them to fall back on in the outside world. Access to regular email with family through this scheme allows for the prisoners to maintain these connections and retain a sense of self-worth that will encourage them to improve their situation through study (also facilitated by the computers)! Furthermore, as beneficial as such a relationship is to the prisoner, it also allows for peace of mind for the families of those imprisoned. Indeed, by being able to communicate with that father, mother, brother or aunt, family members will themselves be less likely to offend due to a reduction in feelings of isolation.
The most important aspect of this scheme is that it encourages prisoner education. Computers, to a far greater extent than any previously available resource, allow prisoners to successfully move towards a TAFE or university qualification, and do so in a far more user-friendly method than any prison library or occasional prison educational course. Why is education particularly important for prisoners though? It is important because there is a clear correlation between one’s level of education and the probability of committing a crime.