Digital Reentry: Uses of and Barriers to ICTs in the Prisoner Reentry Process
34 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2019 Last revised: 18 Sep 2019
Date Written: July 26, 2019
In the United States, prison reform remains the focus of policies and foundation efforts. High incarceration rates and a focus on incapacitation during incarceration lead to a “revolving door effect”, with more than two thirds of parolees rearrested within three years of release. One aspect that is missing from this debate is how access to and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) might improve the prisoner reentry process.
Although there are localized efforts, such as New York City’s Prisoner Reentry Institute’s “Tech 101” course, instruction of ICTs is not a core component of prisoner reentry. Some reentry training is computer-assisted, and some prisons offer basic computer classes. Yet, most courses do not cover how to operate the Internet, and there is little research on access to ICTs and the digital skills of returning citizens. We ask:
RQ1. Which types of ICTs do parolees use, if any, and for what purpose?
RQ2. If parolees do not use ICTs, what are the key barriers to access and use of ICTs?
RQ3. Which kinds of ICTs do parolees need to access and use reentry services?
We conducted focus groups with 78 male and female returning citizens in a large Midwestern city in spring 2018. The mean age was 52 years (M=52.07, SD=19.4). Participants had been released from prison within 4 months of the focus groups and they had served a sentence of at least 2-3 years. We used a semi-structured approach to ask questions about ICT use, use barriers, and the kinds of ICTs needed during reentry. We conducted various rounds of thematic coding of the transcribed data using NVivo.
All participants had cell phones, mostly smartphones (62%), but only few owned laptops or tablets (8.2% and 9.6%, respectively). As most participants lived in temporary housing, access to computers and the Internet was limited. In addition, lack of skills was a main barrier, although this varied depending on age, length of sentence, and how much participants had engaged with ICTs before. The perceived effects of lack of access and skills were largely negative. Participants reported issues in using ICTs to search and apply for jobs, write emails, and use apps on their phones. Whereas some were able to learn from friends, family, shelter staff, community centers, or teach themselves, many were unsure where to ask for help and what kinds of help to ask for.
This study gives crucial insights into ICT uses and barriers to use during the reentry process. As part of our policy recommendations, we stress the importance of including ICT training during and after incarceration. While we do not claim that being able to use ICTs is the magic wand to fix recidivism, we argue that ICTs are an important and currently overlooked component of prisoner reentry.
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