When Creig Robinson went to prison for robbery in 2005, most Americans still relied on dial-up connections for their internet. The iPhone would not be released for another two years and Facebook was a hot new start up with six million users. Eleven years later, when Robinson came out, he felt like he was on another planet.
“Everything was computers and internet,” he said. “Everybody and their mother walked down the street with a phone like it was a permanent attachment to their arm. That was brand new to me.”
Robinson struggled on the outside. Last year, he spent a few months at Riker’s Island on drug charges he eventually beat. When he came out, he sought the help of a non-profit called Exodus, which helps people who have recently left prison reenter society. There, he got an email address and a quick crash course on basic computer skills. He learned how to look for jobs online and how to build a resume on Microsoft Word.
These days Robinson has a smart phone that he is growing increasingly attached to and a laptop that he carries around with him everywhere, but he is still figuring things out. He has a hard time doing things like attaching documents to emails and doing research online. “I’m still learning,” he said. “The biggest challenge is knowing what all the little symbols on the phone and computer mean.”
Every day, men and women who have served long sentences with little access to computers, much less the internet, are released from prison. In addition to bearing the stigma of having been incarcerated, they must learn to navigate a world in which virtually every task, from getting a driver’s license to applying for a job, requires some degree of digital literacy. Most of them end up back in prison. A long-term study of recidivism by the Department of Justice beginning in 2005 showed that 83 percent of people who are released from state prisons are arrested again within a nine-year period.
There is no data on the extent to which lack of digital literacy contributes to keeping the revolving doors of US prisons moving, but experts believe that a basic education in computers can help lower recidivism and boosts self-esteem. In 2015, researchers at Portland State University studied a digital literacy program at a state prison in Louisiana. The one-week computer course was part of a wider re-entry program.
Elizabeth Withers, one of the authors of the study, said in the beginning of the program some participants’ aversion to technology was almost pathological.
“People would come in with real phobias,” she said. Eventually, they would overcome their fears.
“The impact went beyond just building digital skills,” said Withers. “It seemed the pride they felt around learning these skills helped them envision themselves as contributing members of their family and society.” The New Orleans Sherriff’s Parish Office says recidivism fell by 47 percent as a result of the program.
A non-profit in California, the Last Mile, is going a step further. It runs year-long programs teaching inmates how to code. The program began at San Quentin State Prison and has since expanded to four other states. No prior knowledge of computers is required and participants often find jobs in tech and software development when they leave prison. The program says it has a zero percent recidivism rate.
“We believe that everyone has the capability to learn and that people aren’t defined by their circumstances,” said Andrea Henkel, education director at The Last Mile.
But for the vast majority of the prison population, educational programs are not available. Even though basic digital literacy programs exist in some correctional facilities the number of participants is small. Digital literacy programs exist in three city jails in New York; 405 people have participated since 2016. On the state level, the Department of Corrections offers three programs with some degree of digital literacy training, with 1,400 seats available. There are over 77,000 people incarcerated in New York across the state and city correctional systems.
Inmates that are left out lack options if they want to build digital skills. Most state prisons in the country only allow inmates access to court records and law journals on prison computers. In 2014, only 14 percent of correctional educational programs in the country allowed prisoners access to a restricted version of the internet, with 38 percent allowing simulated access (on computers with no connection but pre-loaded with select webpages) and 62 percent allowing no access at all, according to the Department of Education. Security concerns and tight budgets are the main limiting factors to expanding internet availability in prisons.
Non-profits on the outside are left to pick up the pieces. Brian Melendez, who has been in prison himself, teaches a basic computer workshop at The Fortune Society, another reentry non-profit in New York City. He says some of his students have never touched a computer.
“I have to show them how to use a mouse, enter a keystroke,” he said.
At a class earlier this week, he taught half a dozen people, most of them middle-aged men, a wide range of skills, from turning on the computer to using Google Maps.
“I’m looking forward to learning more as far as with the emailing process,” said Evan Brooks, 50, a participant in the program. “That’s where I have some work to do.” Brooks is hoping to enter a career in counseling but worries his lack of computer skills will be an obstacle.
“For people coming home, it’s not the interactions they have with people that causes recidivism,” Melendez said. “It’s stepping out into this technological world that makes them very uncomfortable. They feel like they are not part of society.”
Correction: This story has been updated. In the original version, we misidentified the name of The Fortune Society. We apologize for the error.