WEB 2.0: Prisoner-generated content & the U.S. prison system
THE United States contains 5% of the world’s population and holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. In other words, a quarter of the global prison population resides in single country - the U.S. This is according to a 2008 research report published in California Prison Focus and really is a staggering thought to fathom.
And not only are more than 2 million people imprisoned in the U.S. but after a brief look at the manufacturing output of U.S. prisons, one can rightfully argue that America has reinvented the slave trade.
According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services, 93% of paints and paintbrushes, 92% of stove assembly, 36% of home appliances, 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers and 21% of office furniture.
The list goes on with airplane parts and medical supplies. U.S. prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for the blind.
It’s clear that prison is big business. The multimillion-dollar prison industry has its investors on Wall Street - capitalists who don’t need to worry about their workforce striking or reporting family problems. According to a study by the Progressive Labor Party, corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners' work actually lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their incarcerated workforce. Disgusting.
An Unlikely Source of Web 2.0 Contributors
However, when prisoners are not tinkering away for 25 cents an hour, several are engaging with social media and contributing towards what largely makes up web 2.0. Social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter are becoming more accessible to those incarcerated in the U.S. prison system, and there are even a few that are blogging from behind bars.
A famous example of “blogging behind bars” is the currently imprisoned rapper Lil Wayne who makes semi-regular updates to his website. Since he does not have access to the Internet, the entertainer dictates his posts using the regular mail system which are then typed on his blog remotely by an assistant.
With the rapid growth of web 2.0 and the benefits that it can offer prisoners, several prisons world-wide are now putting systems into place that offer inmates more direct access to electronic communication.
One particular system that allows prisoners to send electronic messages is called the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System, also known as TRULINKS. This is managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and provides email communication without granting access to the Internet.
While the TRULINKS system provides email communication (if approved by the prison staff), some penitentiaries are going further by granting limited Internet access to inmates. Several prisons are installing Internet kiosks that offer online banking, email and video conferencing.
This was done in part to reduce the amount of paper created by the regular mail system and to lower the amount of time it takes to screen physical packages. Furthermore, like TRULINKS, it is not taxpayer dollars that are used to fund these services; the inmates pay for it themselves.
Reforming the prison system: Reward or punishment?
Many will argue that granting prisoners Internet access is a luxury that should not be given to those being punished. However, others insist that being linked in can help rehabilitate the incarcerated – better preparing them for a return to society.
The ability to skillfully use computers and the web are vitally important in the modern world. Allowing prisoners to use the Internet offers them the chance to hone these skills and may make it easier for them to find work once released.
Internet access could be structured as a reward for good behaviour that could easily be taken away if an inmate violates any prison rules. It seems like a fair system that is likely to encourage better behaviour behind bars; I’m sure any chance to engage with family and the outside world would. But bearing the truth of the U.S. prison system in mind, what we really need to see are inside scoops about reforming the U.S. prison system entirely.