Applying a Community Informatics Approach as Part of Rehabilitation in US Prisons

Lassana Magassa
University of Washington


As of mid-2008, over 1.6 million people were incarcerated in the US. This can be attributed to policies that call for mandatory prison sentences for all offenders and longer prison sentences for repeat offenders. Despite data showing victimization crimes have been on a steady decline [1], the amount of people incarcerated doubled from 1985 to 2004. About 40 percent of state prison inmates never received a General Education Diploma (GED) or a High School Diploma (HSD) compared with about 14 percent of all adults [2]. Despite evidence showing that educational training programs can raise employment prospects and reduce recidivism [1], support funding for prison educational programs suffered cuts [2].

Meanwhile information and communications technologies (ICTs) has found its way into virtual every aspect of our lives. Closed off to this world are inmates [17]. The need for a computer/information literate workforce excludes inmates from finding jobs, healthcare, and other services needed to participate in society. Few would disagree, that the Internet has become an important part of the daily life in society. Its use is often taken for granted by the estimated 50 million Americans who use it to do everything from staying in touch with friends and family to discuss politics. Yet today, prisons have not fully embraced the educational and rehabilitational ability of digital literacy. Consequently hundreds of thousands of inmates are being released every year without the skills necessary to effectively engage in society.

U.S. Prisons and Department of Corrections

Americas first genuine prison was created by the Quakers in 1791 and had three goals: “to ensure public security, reformation of prisoners, and ‘humanity toward those unhappy members of society’” [1]. In 1798 a school was added and described “the most beneficial ….for learning for some and improving for others in the first principles of reading, writing, and arithmetic” [4]. Since then education has taken several shapes—rising in the 1930s and then in the 1960’s—influenced by arguments about prison as rehabilitation or punishment.  In the 1980’s prison education was mostly ignored because many Americans were “hostile and suspect of all rehabilitative programs aimed at reintegrating prisoners into the mainstream" [1]. Presently, budget constraints have led to cut backs in correctional education [5]. This combined with an increasing prison population [1], creates a problematic situation. Although the hazards in reducing prison education are apparent, monetary and attitudinal barriers jeopardize the implementation of educational programs that will equip inmates to operate technologically driven, socioeconomic system.

Demographics: Who’s Being Excluded

In 2005, the racial breakdown of US prisons was as follows, 40% Black, 20% Hispanic, and 35% White. The incarceration rate for Black men are especially concerning, especially when you consider those between 20 and 30 years old. Among males ages 25 to 29, nearly 13 percent of Black males were incarcerated, compared to nearly 4 percent of Hispanic males and nearly 2 percent of White males. As of June 2004, an estimated 576,600, among the more than 2.1 million incarcerated were Black males between the ages of 20 and 39.

Educational Attainment & Literacy Rates

The 1996 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) indicated that the literacy level of prisoners is substantially lower than that of the U.S. population as a whole. Little has changed since then. About 40 percent of those incarcerated in the US had less than a high school education. Over 50 percent of that group was under the age of 25. Of them, 54 percent were Hispanic, 44 percent black and 27 percent white. Figure 1 illustrates the huge disparity between the education attainment of Blacks and Hispanics when compared to that of whites.

Figure 1 : Corrections Education

Correctional education programs are an enigma. Rarely will you find reports that provide detailed information that would allow researchers and practitioners to assess the worth and value of programs.  The 2004 US Department of Education [6] report is the most recent attempt at this. Ideally the report would provide comprehensive information on programs available in US correctional facilities. Although it doesn’t do this, it is the most reliable source of information and will be used to communicate the state of correctional education in the U.S.

Inmates Participation in Correctional Education

As of 2000 ninety percent of state prisons provided some sort of educational service [6] including one or more of the following: Adult Basic (ABE) and Secondary Education (ADE), Vocational Education, College Coursework, Special Education, and Study Release. Only 50 percent of inmates participated in them. This can be due to many factors including [6] provisions on enrollment or the availability of programs. Inmates with the lowest educational attainment were the most likely to receive services. Participants usually enroll in GED or vocational training [6]. Findings from a study by Rice et al. and Luiden and Perry determined that programs tailored to the prison population, designed to hone skills needed in the job market and that follow up with inmates after their release are likely to succeed.

Figure 2 : Recidivism

More than two-thirds of inmates released from prison will be rearrested within three years [7],[8],[6],[9].  However, inmates who participate in educational programs were less likely to be re-incarcerated. Additionally they were more financially sound in the years to followed [10]. Despite the success of correctional education, prisons were unable to keep up with the growing prison population.

Now what?

Prisons are plagued with individuals negatively affected by the digital divide. They have the lowest levels of educational and literacy rates. Although the importance of digital literacy training has been recognized, approximately 600,000 inmates return to society every year in the same condition that they left. Despite an increasing necessity to prepare prisoners to participate in an information society, investments in prison education have declined. More important the models in place—some of which may attempt to provide inmates with digital skills—appear to be outdated and unable to provide inmates with necessary digital literacy skills. Since situations differ from state to state, the remainder of this work will focus on Washington state prisons. It will begin by examining the Washington Department of Corrections (WA-DOC). Then using the Access Rainbow, the final section will highlight issues related to access.

Narrowing In: Washington Department of Corrections

WA-DOC has experienced a steady growth in the prison population over the last few decades. Washington’s prison population grew from 7,009 in 1986 to 17,973 in 2006. This increase affects the community and “will have profound effects on their [offenders] behaviour for the rest of their lives” [11]. In Washington 37 percent of those released are incarcerated for new crimes or violating parole within five years [11]. The growth has meant reallocating funds from essential educational programs to investments for housing and ensuring and facilities remain secure. As evidence, in 2001, states spent $29.5 billion for prisons, a $5.5 billion increase from 1996 [11].

WA-DOC acknowledges as stated in [11] a 2006 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) that basic and vocational education programs do effectively reduce recidivism. WSIPP added that if more inmates take part in the programs, Washington may be able to avoid building two new prisons “by 2020, at a cost of approximately $250 million each to build, and $45 million per year to operate” [11]. Thus over the last few years, re-entry, defined as “all activities and programming conducted to prepare ex-convicts to return safely to the community and to live as law abiding citizens” [12] has become a focus of the department of corrections.

WA-DOC Education

Committed to increasing public safety, reducing recidivism and the need for more prisons in 2008 the WA-DOC instituted a re-entry initiative with an emphasis on education. It is meant to address “the attitudes, behaviors and personal deficits that increase the chance an offender will commit new crimes after release from DOC custody or supervision” [13]. Programs are offered at each of the state’s fifteen prisons. The basic skills program, available at all fifteen sites provides those incarcerated a chance to obtain ABE, ESL training or a GED. About 41 percent of offenders are able to take advantage of these services.

Vocational Program

# of Facilities

Information Technology Certificate


Building Maintenance




Computer Application Scientist


Interactive Media


Technological Design


Other (Banking, Horticulture, Upholstery, etc.)


Although vocational programs are available at fourteen facilities, the WA-DOC “currently meets only about 40 percent of the vocational-training need in the incarcerated population” [11]. Furthermore, based on the information gathered, these programs at most superficially address the digital divide.

Cost of Exclusion

Providing certain groups with access to ICT’s "will not always be seen in a favourable light by existing authorities" [14]. This is certainly the case with the incarcerated. However, we are at a point where ICT is interwoven in virtually all social and economic activities, and the cost of consciously excluding them instead of investigating ways to equip them with digital literacy skills necessary to effectively operate in an information society can be detrimental. Digital exclusion has an estimated negative economic impact of $55 billion per year [15]which can be felt in eleven areas—Health Care, Education, Economic Opportunity, Civic Engagement, E-Government, Energy, Public Safety and Response, Emergency, Transportation, Personal Financial Management, Consumer Benefits, and Personal Communications and Entertainment. Adding the impact of excluding prison inmates would magnify this. If continued, it “may impose an even greater cost ... being on the outside is worsened when being on the inside is made more efficient” [15].

Community Informatics

Cl is a field of practice where practitioners work with institutions to devise responsible ways to help individuals in marginalized communities benefit from opportunities—social, economic, political or cultural—presented because of technology [17]. CI takes into account how they’re organized, managed, process information. Assuming that prisons are trying to help empower inmates to lead law-abiding lives, the last point is paramount. CI establishes from the start that providing access to ICT is not enough. Instead it is what can be done with the access that makes ICT meaningful [18].

Community Informatics Manifested in Prisons through the Access “Rainbow”

There are numerous barriers to providing web-ready computer access in prisons. However, unless confronted prisons may continue to reinforce the social and economic barriers that led to incarceration in the first place. The Access Rainbow [19] (AR), “a seven-layer conceptual model of access…” [17] systematically addresses the different "levels" through which access is determined, helps discussions move away from brainstorming reasons not to provide to determining how ICT’s be used to help fulfill the prisons mission. It may need to be slightly modified to embrace the interest of correctional centers. The model fleshes out the multiple layers associated with access. Each layer is essential and leaving one out compromises successful application of the model.

Arzberger, P., Schroeder, P. Beaulieu, A., Bowker, G., Casey, K., Laaksonen, L., Moorman, D., Uhlir, P., & Wouters, P. (2004): Promoting Access to Public Research Data for Scientific, Economic, and Social Development.  Data Science Journal 3:135-152, November 2004.

This model was applied by Mielnizcuk [19] for the Social Development Network (SDN), a coalition whose members believe that ICT's should be used to attain goals. SDN focus was on the sixth layer—literacy and social facilitation. The model was also applied in policy discussions that aimed to identify issues of access as they related to women and devise ways of addressing them.

Using information currently in hand about the WA-DOC the AR is used to highlight issues and challenges that arise in discussions on prison inmates as computer users.

1.Carriage Facilities: Although basic telephone service is available at prisons, implementing a technology supportive infrastructure is a huge undertaking. Having the WA-DOC or a third-party cover infrastructure costs is crucial to creating an environment that will help equip them with skills for technology driven socioeconomic society. 

2.Physical Devices: The price of PCs has decreased as capabilities continue to increase. Today PCs can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Consequently it is not surprising that WA-DOC facilities have computers at its different facilities. However, considering many leave prison without encountering a computer, it is safe to say that there is a shortage. To date there are no web-ready computers accessible to inmates. However WA-DOC employees are able to gain access to the web from inside facilities. Presently computers are accessible to inmates who visit the educational center. WA-DOC is preparing to launch a pilot project where strategically placed kiosks at a prison will permit access to mp3 audio and email. A move in the right direction, there are some foreseeable obstacles. First, use policies that are similar to ones used with the phones may not be feasible. For example 15 minutes (the time allotted per phone call) may not be enough time to read an email and respond or look through a catalog of mp3 audio files.

3.Software Tools: One of the hurdles to providing access is that prisons have not figured out how to control and monitor use. Cases where convicts used the Internet for criminal purposes (Sullivan, 2000, p. 58) has led corrections officials to be very cautious, referring to the Internet as a security issue. Software products that track use in real-time and alert officials are presently available. As an example, a Florida state prison installed “Silent Watch” [20], a software program that allows administrators to monitor a dozen computers in real time. Features of the program include: “an audible alarm …sound if a prisoner has typed a word or phrase deemed objectionable and the ability and the ability to view all email sent between inmates...” (Sullivan, 2000).  Accordingly, some of the concerns WA-DOC once had may no longer be warranted.

4.Content Services: Governmental and local service agencies are replacing traditional print resources with digital ones. This is true for virtually all sectors of the American society. As an example, Seattle’s website ( gives patrons the opportunity to complete various tasks including, apply for jobs, search legislation, and pay utility bills. Prison computers should allow access to these because it will be useful once released. Computers should also have access to content that are of interest to inmates, but may not be related to the government or service agencies. Exposure to these to content types while incarcerated is likely to demonstrate the value of ICTs and create lifelong users.

5.Service/ Access Provision: There is no such thing as unrestricted access in prisons—not to food, phone calls, social workers, much less computers.  One way of determining access is through offender classification. Classification of inmates is based on the potential harm an offender poses to offenders, staff, and visitors. The security levels range from one to four with level 1 being the least restrictive and level 4 being extremely restrictive.  Using a tiered system those being released within four months (M1) would be provided with the greatest exposure training supported by web-ready computers.

6.Literacy/ Social Facilitation: Adult Basic Education programs are currently available to address literacy. There was a 12.2% increase in the number of inmates completing the program verse last year. An Information Technology Certificate course is offered under the vocational program. It is unclear if it explicitly targets the digital divide [19] or if it consists of nothing more than keyboard and menu navigation skills. The access and training that inmates receive should be structured in a way that allows them to complete tasks that are important to them. It should provide them with an understanding of how to retrieve information using a variety of online tools and the ability to create a presence. As an example they should know how to complete online job applications, obtain information about services, etc.

7.Governance: Current public policy in the form of the re-entry programs are based on the realization that thousands of former offenders will be returning to their old neighborhoods. The goal of the programs is to help inmates reconnect with family members and seamlessly re-enter the labor market as a law abiding, self-sufficient citizen. Writing policies that govern how access will be facilitated can position prisons to narrow the digital divide. It should not be the case, as will be with the pilot project soon-to-be launched, that inmates have to pay to access the web.


Prisons, prisoners, computers and the internet are complex in their own respect. Combing them makes things seem even more convoluted. Before opposing the idea of a sufficient level of a digital divide intervention program, one should consider the thoughts expressed above. Likewise, those in support of providing access should consider potential hazards and why prison administration and citizens have expressed concern. Its potential to create productive community members is encouraging. Additionally, investing in a correctional digital education programs upfront can save WA-DOC future expenses associated with incarceration [5],[13],[10],[16]. More importantly it provides inmates with the tools necessary to responsibly engage in an information society.  There are several examples where technology was introduced [21] to help marginalized groups elevate themselves as oppose to maintaining reproducing negative effects of current social structures. The application of the model above is attempt to initiate dialogue to support this. Acknowledging that much work remains to be completed before U.S. prisons are to include internet access as part of the rehabilitation effort, probably the most important task, is to introduce it in discussions about how to equip incarcerated individuals with the skills they need to successfully integrate in to society.

In closing, this work proposes that US prisons play a more active role in providing an environment that allows inmates, most of whom come from low income homes and have low literacy rates, to develop their digital literacy skills and help them understand and learn how to exploit the benefits of technology in leading productive law abiding lives. This is an endeavour that no one entity should pursue on their own, but instead together—the government, prison administration, policy makers and the inmates themselves. The application of the access rainbow is an attempt to help move this discussion forward.


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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441