Email from behind bars? Prisoner advocates push for access to laptops, tablets and internet

As some countries move to give prisoners access to email, the internet and in-cell tablets, advocates say Canada is lagging behind by denying federal inmates access to essential technology.

Other countries allow offenders to connect to outside world through online computers

Prison advocates are urging Correctional Service Canada to give inmates better access to computers, email and the internet. (Shutterstock)

As some countries move to give prisoners access to email, the internet and in-cell tablets, advocates say Canada is lagging behind by denying federal inmates access to essential technology.

Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger said personal computers were prohibited in penitentiaries in 2002, and now prisoners only have sparse access to off-line machines.  He called technology an "essential" part of living in the 21st century, and said the lack of laptops and other computers is counter to educational and rehabilitation goals.

"Given the investment we put in federal corrections, Canada should be leading on evidence-based practices, and one area where we are definitely far behind is in technology," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"It can facilitate re-entry and safe reintegration, can be a great tool for improving education and a great tool for lowering the burden of correctional staff."

Zinger said there is only one computer per 63 inmates on average across the country and only one for every 114 offenders in the Prairies — a number he called "grossly inadequate."

The correctional investigator's 2015-2016 report made a series of recommendations to improve offenders' access to computers and connectivity, and at that time, the Correctional Service Canada responded with a promise to explore "potential pilots to provide for monitored email, tablets and laptops within a secured environment."

But spokeswoman Sara Parkes said CSC is still in the exploration phase, and confirmed that no pilot program has been launched to date.

CSC has brought in new educational software and is looking to expand the number of computers.

No internet access

"CSC recognizes computer access can benefit offenders' educational and work skills and has ensured computers are available to inmates in school and work/program assignment areas, institutional libraries, and/or other designated areas," she said in an email.

"For security reasons, any computers that inmates can access are not linked to the CSC's security systems, external networks, or the internet."

In the U.S., inmates have had access to monitored email since 2009.

Federal inmates are not permitted to bring personal computers into prison, and must share each machine with dozens of other offenders. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long said computers without internet access are available to inmates for educational and vocational training purposes, and also to access legal materials and research. He did not immediately have data on how many computers were available for shared use.

Inmates can't bring in or possess their own personal computers and do not have access to the internet.

But Long said the service is looking for ways to help inmates gain skills for successful re-entry into the community. 

Some prisoners online

"The Bureau of Prisons continues to explore options related to providing cost-effective and educationally productive tools for the inmate population, including web-based resources," he told CBC in an email.

In Belgium, a system called PrisonCloud has been introduced that allows prisoners to access the internet, make calls and download films (including porn) from the privacy of their own cell. Other European countries allow inmates online, with varying degrees of access to websites.

Advocates say access to technology improves education and rehabilitation efforts. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Zinger, who has spoken with IT specialists about security issues, said a restricted intranet system could lead to more educated, skilled inmates, which would improve public safety by improving employment prospects and reducing the chance they will reoffend once they're released.

"Even countries like the Ukraine are more advanced than Canada," he said. "I do not buy the security issue, the privacy issue. I think there are always solutions. You have to be careful and make sure the device can't be tampered with to be used for illegal or inappropriate purposes, but if you monitor well and someone abuses it, then you take it away."

Computer access could also help inmates manage their own legal affairs, canteen purchases, appointments and financial issues, he said.


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