Two Million on the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide

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By Brenda Vogel, Retired Library Coordinator, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries. Originally published in Interface, Spring 2008

As ASCLA librarians our close association with digitally disadvantaged library patrons gives us an insight into their information needs and a responsibility to stand up for them.

The digital world is alien to the vast majority of men and women who have been serving time in U.S. prisons from before the eras of the PC and the coming of the Digital Age.

Over two million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, of which sixty percent are minorities. Ninety-five percent of these people will be released at some time during their lives and become part of the migration of more than 600,000 ex-offenders returning from prisons and jails to American communities each year.

Because an inmate occasionally hacking into a correctional staff computer for nefarious Internet use makes the headline; not one correctional librarian in the U.S. is allowed to permit a patron to access the Internet.1

Why should we care if criminals who have been removed from society as punishment do not have Internet access?

Setting digitally dysfunctional people (information outsiders) back into a culture revolutionized by the Digital Age lowers the expectation of a successful life for them, their children, and our community.

Without the practical skill-sets of information-literate people, most prisoners cannot conceptualize an information need, seek reliable sources, or internalize and apply their findings.

The ex-offender, unable to cope with computerization, is devoid of the cultural capital that drives behavior and decision-making. Upon release this person will likely be shut out from the technology-driven marketplace.

By refusing to allow correctional librarians to assist their patrons in understanding Internet information-seeking strategies, correctional practice has created a greater obstacle to the assimilation of ex-offenders into the outside world. This is the legacy from twentieth-century corrections.

Current public policy in the form of the correctional transition program is based on the realization that more than half a million former incarcerees are headed for their old neighborhood or home town. The goal of transitioning is to ready an inmate for entry into the labor market as a law abiding, self-sufficient citizen. This effort fails to recognize the vital digital connection that an ex-offender must have in order to at least participate, if not compete, in twenty-first century America.

Today there are hardware and software solutions to the legitimate correctional security concerns regarding Internet mischief and malice. Librarian and information technology expertise can identify secure hardware and software systems that address these concerns and support the introduction of digital literacy programs for inmates.

Correctional librarians alone cannot stand against this digital denial tyranny; they seek the support and the voice of all information providers.

For more information, contact Brenda Vogel. A revised edition of Vogel's book, Down for the Count: A Prison Library Handbook, is forthcoming (Scarecrow Press, 2008).

Note: 1. The federal Bureau of Prisons and several state and local correctional agencies are now piloting local area network (LAN) e-mail systems for inmates so they can communicate without fees with families and attorneys. Many prisons and jails do have stand-alone computers in libraries and offer vocational programs in computer use and repair.