Taystee Tech

One of the key issues raised in our recent TechTable with Attorney General Kamala Harris was how to reform the criminal justice system. Digging deeper, we find that the root of most of the problems is that inmates are not adequately prepared to reenter society, both in terms of job skills and financial stability. This creates a cyclical effect in which individuals, ill prepared to transition into the “real world,” fall back into old habits and become repeat offenders.

Though largely fictional, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black does a great job of showing this. [SEASON 1 SPOILER ALERT!] Litchfield prisoner Taystee is released from prison, but returns just a few months later. Though she doesn’t explicitly state this, it is implied that she violated her parole intentionally.

[img_testimonial img=”https://www.t4a.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/taystee.jpg” author=”Taystee”]When you get out, they be up your ass like the KGB. Curfew every night. Piss in a cup whenever they say… Minimum wage is [a] joke. I got part-time work at Pizza Hut and still owe the prison $900 in fees… I was sleeping on the floor of my second cousin apartment like a dog… I got lice. Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. At least in here you get dinner. I know how to play it here. Where to be, and what rules to follow. I got a bed…1[/img_testimonial]

Without any proper training, money, or transition assistance, Taystee finds that she cannot function outside of the system. Whether intentionally or not, it seems inevitable that she will end up back in prison.

The prison system has become more about punishment than rehabilitation. We become so obsessed with ensuring that “justice is served” that we forget that, at some point, most of these offenders are going to end up back in society and expected to contribute.

So how do we prepare prisoners for successful reentry? One place to start is with technology. After learning of a few Guantanamo Bay inmates’ plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a milk and honey farm, Michael Thomsen wrote an article for Forbes exploring whether inmates should be able to participate in Kickstarter. While this is an interesting topic on it’s own, there is also a larger problem at play: the lack of technology in prisons. As Thomsen explains, many inmates come to prison already in financial trouble only to rack up more debt to the prisons during their stay.2 How can we expect these already disadvantaged individuals to succeed when we throw them into the world with their hands tied behind their back? The jobs that are available often require some level of technical skills yet we have no way to teach them these while in prison. It is extremely difficult to even get computers into prisons, let alone competent instructors to teach the inmates how to use them. Why are we making something simple so difficult? There are people out there willing to do the work – to go into prisons and teach or supply inmates with computers. To me, providing technology in prisons seems to only have positive impacts. Not only do we prepare prisoners to succeed once they are released but we also set the stage for the trickle down effects of someone maintaining a steady job. We also have the added benefit of keeping these individuals out of prison and therefore saving, on average, over $30,000 of taxpayer funds per inmate.3

Technology is designed to empower people, to make learning accessible, and to further improve the world. The more people who can utilize technology, the more progress that can be made. Technology is one tool that could greatly decrease our recidivism rates at a relatively low cost. Why then, are we withholding it from prisoners?



1 Smith, J. (2013, August 22). A former prisoner on what Orange Is the New Black gets right — and what it doesn’t [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/jeffsmithmo/a-former-prisoner-on-what-orange-is-the-new-black-gets-right

2 Thomsen, M. (2014, February 21). Should inmates in prison be able to launch Kickstarter projects? Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelthomsen/2014/02/21/should-inmates-in-prison-be-able-to-launch-kickstarter-projects/

3 Santora, M. (2013, August 24). City’s annual cost per inmate is $168,000, study finds. New York Times, p. A16. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/nyregion/citys-annual-cost-per-inmate-is-nearly-168000-study-says.html