Lentis/Technology and Incarceration in the United States

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As of December 2019, approximately 2.3 million people were imprisoned in the United States, yielding a U.S. rate of incarceration of 696 per 100,000 people which is the highest proportion of incarcerated population of a country in the world.[1] Of the U.S. incarcerated population as of October 2019, 37.4% of inmates are African-American and 32.3% are Hispanic.[2] The 2018 census shows that African-Americans represent 13.4% of the population and Hispanics represent 18.3%.[3] Many have attributed these disproportionate rates to the "War on Drugs" initiated by Richard Nixon in the 1980s.[4] This effort to criminalize drug use affected many African-Americans, Hispanics, and women.[5] The number of women behind bars has drastically increased since the 1980s, increasing 400% for women of all races and 800% for African-American women.[6]

History of Correctional Education[edit]

A lower level of education is generally correlated with higher incarceration rates.[7] One aim of correctional education is to improve access to education in corrections. In the 1700s, correctional education in America focused on "moral education." Inmates only text was the Bible, which was used to teach spelling, grammar, history, geography, and religion.[8] This "Sabbath School" was designed "so that the [convicts] may leave the Prison better prepared to be...useful citizens."[9] Most facilities required that prisoners receive reading lessons; teachers, chaplains, and community members rose to the challenge.[8] The subjects taught and books used, particularly in juvenile detention facilities, gradually expanded throughout the 1800s to match educational standards outside the prison system.[8]

The industrial revolution brought a demand for skilled labor and prisons responded with enhanced vocational programs.[10] By the 1970s, correctional education was viewed as integral to the prison experience and correctional education programs were able to support "a rich curriculum of vocational education, adult basic education, secondary education, post-secondary education, as well as numerous other self-help programs."[11] Correctional education evolved further to address the total needs of the prisoner.[12] Now, nearly all prisons offer a range of educational opportunities, from vocational apprenticeships to psycho-social programs (e.g., counseling, therapy) to pre- and post-release programs.[11]

Until 2009, the internet was not permitted for use in prisons. The Department of Justice limits inmates to monitored, secure email and educational technologies. Mobile correctional education technologies have increased in recent years. In 2013, 93% of states used desktop computers, 40% used mobile laptops, and 10% used tablets. However, 62% of states allowed no student access to the internet; teachers and instructors were permitted to use it or students had only simulated access.[13] The rise of educational technologies, specifically tablets, can improve access to education in prisons. These tablets provide GED preparation courses, secondary education courses, and vocational training. They can also improve access to email and entertainment. There are considerable safety concerns associated with tablets. Current safety features include shatter-proof glass to prevent the tablets from being used as weapons, clear cases to ensure contraband cannot be hidden inside, and safety software. Technology is constantly evolving and adapting to the security needs of the prison system in order to deliver safe educational services to prisoners. Despite the steps taken to address tablet safety and other concerns, some opponents believe prison is a punishment that should not include access to education or entertainment at all.

Purpose of Prison[edit]

The purpose of prison can be reduced to two opposing views: the more ideologically-conservative approach emphasizing deterrence and incapacitation and the more ideologically-liberal approach emphasizing reformation and rehabilitation.[14]

Deter and Incapacitate

Some believe that those who commit crimes or violate the social contract should be removed from society. This removal prevents society from being further harmed by the offender. Being isolated is detrimental to human health and the thought of being so removed from society may act as a deterrent to potential offenders. Researchers like Steven Shavell [15] have studied the optimal sanctions for deterrence and incapacitation. Those who believe prison should deter and incapacitate prisoners are unlikely to support technologies that provide prisoners with an education and access to the outside world.

Reform and Rehabilitate

Punishment can also be a chance for people to understand their mistakes and to correct the behavior in the future. In prisons, rehabilitation is generally done through education -- whether moral, technical, or basic. This can be combined with technology or not. Rehabilitation has shaped U.S. sentencing and correctional policies over the past century and there is currently an active debate over whether rehabilitation should be a constitutional right, as it is in a number of European nations.[16]

Technology and the U.S. Prison System[edit]

Training Programs

Recidivism refers to an inmate's relapse into criminal behavior, often following intervention from a previous crime and is measured in the re conviction of a prisoner during the three-year period following his release. It is used to judge the efficacy of prison. [17] The rate of recidivism in the U.S. is currently reported to be 43%. [18] Prisons use technology literacy training programs to reduce this. Technology is viewed as a barrier to an inmate's successful integration to society because they are often unable to keep up with the constant changes to technology. Training programs cost on average from $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate, while re-incarceration costs were found to be between $8,700 to $9,700 less for each inmate who took part in the programs versus those who did not. Technology training programs led to a 28% higher chance of employment after prison. [19]

Educational Tablets

Educational Tablets are used in addition to technological training programs to accustom prisoners to technology and reduce recidivism. For-profit companies that sell educational tablets for inmates believe that providing inmates with tablets will improve prison safety by keeping inmates occupied. Tablets for inmates are sold by JPay, Telmate, American Prison Data Systems (APDS), Union Supply, Edovo, and Global Tel*Link (GTL). Tablets also allow for inmates' activities to be monitored. With tablets, inmates have access to more educational and vocational programs than conventional correctional programs. The companies believe that allowing inmates to independently operate tablets reduces the stress of prison and lessens inmates' aggression.[20] Prison officials have found significant decreases in "inmate-on-inmate" and "inmate-on-staff" assaults and a reduction in rule violations in facilities that offer Telmate tablets.[20] Tablets also allow inmates to have more frequent contact with their family through email and video visits. Family support during and after incarceration reduces recidivism and increases inmates' chances of finding housing and employment after release.[21][22] Minority rights and Advocacy groups also support their usage. In 1972, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) created the Prison Outreach Program to provide educational, vocational, and counseling programs to inmates and address racial incarceration disparities.[23] Ben Jealous, former NAACP president, advocates for the use of educational tablets to reduce recidivism and improve conditions in prisons.[24]

Corrections Officers and Victim Assistance Organizations oppose the usage of technological tablets. The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) is a union that works to promote and improve the corrections profession. In response to a recent push to introduce tablet technology to Pennsylvania prisons, the PSCOA has voiced safety concerns. Jason Bloom, vice president of the PSCOA, states that "we all know inmates can overcome security protocols" and that "potential risks don't justify the taxpayer expense."[25] The National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) is an advocacy group for victims of crimes. In their mission statement, they state that their organization is "championing dignity and compassion for those harmed by crime and crisis."[26] NOVA has publicly stated that they fear that introducing technology into prisons will result in “unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims.”[27]

Cell Phones and Internet Usage

Prison officials have combated with cell phone smuggling to prevent prisoners from outside communication since their invention. Smartphones present a new challenge as they allow for internet usage and not only direct outside communication. In November 2011, a convicted killer in Oklahoma was found to be posting photos on his Facebook profile with guns, knives, and alcohol. In 2009, gang members in a Maryland prison were discovered to be using smartphones to coordinate robberies and order contraband into prison. [28] Such instances have led to increased monitoring of contraband and cell checks. Certain correctional personnel and most prisoners believe monitored smartphone usage to be beneficial. In Kentucky, 92.2% of correctional personnel believed inmates should have access to telephone privileges. [29] In 2018, Union County Jail in South Carolina allowed prisoners to purchase smartphones in commissary. They allow for access to only certain information and are regulated by the prison. Union County Sheriff David Taylor believes that "this adds another method of safety to our facility because it takes away the mischief of the inmates sitting back there 24 hours a day with nothing to do." [30]


Historically prisoners smuggle contraband hiding it in body cavities or bribing officials. Drones have become widely available to customers, can be flown for long distances, and contain GPS trackers and cameras, making them ideal for transportation of contraband over prison walls. [31] In August 2015, officials discovered a plot to use a drone to smuggle a handgun and drugs to the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen Moyer described it was “the first case in Maryland where a drone is suspected in a contraband delivery plot” [32] [33] On October 2015, a drone carrying tobacco, a cell phone, drugs, and hacksaw blades were discovered at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary after it crashed. Such instances have become more widespread as drone technology increases and have led prisons to employ new security measures like increased personnel and netted walls. [34]

Video Visitations

Video visitations have become increasingly common in prisons, allowing visitors to use an app to ‘visit’ their inmate from their home or other remote location. Inmates and families agree that video visitation services would be a “god-send” as a convenient alternative option, but “impersonal and dehumanizing” as a replacement to the existing visitation system[35]. Video visitation services providers typically offer to cover implementation costs for prisons but require replacement of the existing visitation system in order to ensure that enough revenue is made to recover the deployment costs [36]. This saves prisons costs of running and staffing visitation programs. Instead, visitors must now pay by session or minutes to speak with inmates over a video feed. Video visitation users are largely dissatisfied as many prisons that implement video visitation systems are county prisons where visitors were able to visit in person for free. The video visitation software itself is known to have noticeably low video quality and unreliable networking, causing a significant portion of video sessions to be canceled or cut off abruptly[37].

AI Phone Surveillance

Phone calls from prisons are known to be monitored and recorded for security purposes, and have revealed incriminating information in a number of cases. However, because most calls are harmless, prisons rarely have staffing to monitor calls in real-time. As a result, phone monitoring is mostly reactive: recorded phone calls are used for investigation after a crime[38]. Voice recognition and machine learning software has been used to automate this process, scanning mass amounts of voice data to extract useful information. Intelligent Voice is one such company that has been used to identify “popular non-trivial phrases”. Police can look at these phrases to identify them as code words for illegal activity[39]. Prisons across the country have begun to store recordings of inmates reciting a script of common words to build a bio metric database. This database can then be used outside the prison system to identify untracked individuals who speak with prisoners often [40].

Who Participates in Correctional Education Programs?[edit]

Studies that evaluate the effectiveness of correctional education could be influenced by selection bias. Studies have shown that significant predictors of participation in correctional educational programs are age, race, prior education, sentence length, gender, and prior convictions.[41][42][43] Rose (2004) believes that women are less likely to enroll in education programs due to anxiety about the welfare and custody of their children.[44][45][46] Multiple studies have also found that inmates with visitation from their children, longer sentences, and greater education are more likely to enroll in educational programs.[42][43][44] A 2014 study showed that white prisoners are 25.6% more likely to enroll in post-secondary education than their black counterparts.[42] Knepper (1989) found that those most likely to participate were white, male, and slightly older with no prior convictions.[41]


The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The ideals or purpose of any given prison, whether it be reformation and rehabilitation or deterrence and incapacitation, determine the availability of opportunities in the facility many times. Correctional education has been found to reduce recidivism and increase employment of inmates after release.[47] Tablets provide educational, vocational, entertainment, and communication services that help keep inmates up to date on current events, potentially further increase employment while reducing recidivism, inmate violence, and prison costs. If tablets for correctional education are to be widely adopted, opposition to them must be understood and addressed. Differing opinions about the role of prison could prevent tablet technology from being used.

In the future, researchers should study the effect of tablet technology on security, recidivism, education, prison safety, and employment, how the idea of a panopticon affects inmates' interactions with technology, newer technologies implemented in prisons, and what inmates' think about the technology they are allowed to use and the technology that is used on them. The development of less expensive phone services, such as Pigeonly, for inmates and their impact on recidivism and enrollment in correctional education could also be evaluated.[48]


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