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Essay: Many prisoners spend years without touching a smartphone. It means they have trouble navigating life on the outside

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In an article first published on The Conversation, YE IN (JANE) HWANG looks at how digital exclusion affects prisoners as they re-enter. society…

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any aspect of daily life that doesn’t require some form of digital literacy. We only have to look back ten years to realize how quickly things have changed.

In 2013, we still mainly bought paper bus tickets and used Facebook on a desktop computer. Now we order food by scanning codes and tapping our cards to make payments.


PHOTO: Sakhoorn/Shutterstock

Digital inclusion (one’s ability to keep pace with technology) is a key healthcare and social equity issue, amplified by the rapid digital developments that have emerged during the COVID pandemic.

Among those susceptible to digital exclusion, there is one group that may be most affected, due to a collision of several trends: people leaving prison and re-entering society at an older age or after long periods of captivity end up. In a new study, we interviewed former prisoners about their experiences trying to adapt to ubiquitous technology after years of going without it.

“Among those vulnerable to digital exclusion, there is one group that, due to a collision of different trends, may be most affected: people who leave prison and, at an older age, or after long periods of imprisonment, re-enter enter society. ”

Unknown technology damages trust
The prison population is aging worldwide for a number of reasons, including the aging of the general population, the trend of people entering prison at older ages or staying longer. At the same time, Australian prisons remain technologically very limited environments, mainly for security reasons.

We interviewed 15 Australians (47-69 years old) about their experiences with reintegration after release from prison.

The (mainly male) interviewees remember an exciting and difficult time. They described feeling like strangers thrown into a world where survival depended on their ability to use technology.

Regardless of their pre-prison experiences, the rapid digitalization of daily functions they were once familiar with made their skills and confidence irrelevant. One former prisoner said: “There is a significant gap…for anyone who has probably spent more than five to seven years (in prison). Because things change so quickly… they don’t know what the world looks like.

This had a profound impact on their self-esteem and self-efficacy, and reinforced the stigma they experienced, adding a heavy psychological and emotional burden to an already stressful time. They told us: “You want to belong, you want to be invisible, belong and be part of the crowd, or just be invisible. Because many people who leave prison still carry their crime or transgression on their shoulders. And anything that involves the head popping up outside the norm really causes people’s anxiety. There will be people for whom these technological hurdles are a really big problem and really affect your anxiety, really affect your needs and want to socialize and communicate with other people.



Worsening of recidivism
Reintegration after prison is already a challenge. There is worrying evidence around recidivism, risk of mortality after release, social isolation, unemployment and homelessness.

Digital exclusion poses an additional barrier for older people, who are already at high risk of medical and social marginalization. A former prisoner said: “Think about it, after ten years you’re like, OK, where do I start? And everything is difficult. And sometimes this is why people fall back into the same situations, because it’s just too hard.”

Technology is not completely absent from Australian prisons, but interviewees described the programs and technology as outdated, basic or limited in relevance to their daily lives after release.

Recent efforts to bring touchscreen devices to NSW prisons indicate positive change. However, our interviewees claimed that there was a lack of education about this, which increases the risk of digital division even within prison.


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What can be done?
Investments should be made in specific digital literacy or technology readiness programs tailored to the unique needs of this population, both pre- and post-release.

Interviewees provided suggestions on how such programs could be implemented and were willing to engage with them. They tended to focus on learning in an environment free from stigma and judgment about their literacy level or history, with practical experience and personal support. Interviewees preferred to learn in prison, with additional outside support available. Three interviewees said:

If they could somehow integrate it into the prisons where you know, they would actually show them how to use it and how to download an app and how to use the basic apps like, you know, Centrelink, MyGov, that would be a lot. a better life for them when they are released.

I think many ex-prisoners shy away from this community education. Because they’re actually paranoid.

As you know, there’s no point in someone sitting there telling you how it works; you have to experience it yourself.

On a broader level, improving the digital inclusion of people in prison requires a change in mindset among government stakeholders and the community. Ultimately, it requires a commitment to rehabilitation-centered practices while managing competing needs for safety and segregation.

Based on the evidence, we can be confident that this will promote positive change for the 95 percent of Australian prisoners who will ultimately be released.The conversation

Ye In (Jane) Hwang is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Population Health, UNSW Sydney. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.