Linking in the locked up: iSchool student investigates digital literacy behind bars

Every day, prisons release thousands of inmates into the outside world — a high-tech, hyper-connected world they may no longer recognize. “Many people leaving prison are totally overwhelmed by the presence of digital tools everywhere they look. They are realizing that a whole world has passed them by while they were incarcerated,” says iSchool Ph.D. candidate Lassana Magassa.

A lack of digital literacy can set them up for failure as they try to transition back to society, he says. Government, social, and health services have gone online. Digital tools are required to access educational opportunities. And more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies including Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy now require online job applications.

Yet in today’s prisons, though inmates may have restricted and monitored email privileges, none can access the Internet. Furthermore, unless they are enrolled in some educational program, most cannot even access a computer. When they get out, they’re left out.

“Prisons have an obligation to prepare inmates to function effectively in this new digital world,” says Magassa, who was awarded a 2012 Google Policy Fellowship last spring for his interest in prisoners and digital literacy, which he defines as “the awareness of, knowledge about, and ability to select and use digital tools to locate, organize, evaluate, analyze, create, and communicate information.”

Magassa’s work aims to identify these digital literacy needs behind bars and help corrections systems address them in updated prison re-entry programs. His hope is that this will help reduce high rates of recidivism in America, a country some call the “incarceration nation.”

A 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts Center study shows that 1 in every 100 American adults is now behind bars. And, once released, more than 40 percent who leave prison will be back.

Add education into the equation and the picture shifts. Studies show that when prisoners — who  are typically low-income with minimal schooling — participate in education programs, they have significantly lower rates of re-offending. That can save millions of dollars for states which, on average, spend more than $30,000 a year per inmate. “It is much less expensive to educate inmates than to incarcerate them,” says Magassa.

But no such studies exist on the financial benefits of being digitally literate, he says. “People look at other populations negatively affected by the digital divide — the homeless, the poor, the elderly — but not at inmates. Unfortunately, in our society, there’s not much attention paid to this issue.”

Reasons for this are complex and deep-rooted. “The incarceration system is all about control — about knowing what people are doing and when they are doing it. And digital technology is about emancipation, freedom, flexibility,” says the iSchool researcher. “That clash of concepts has been one of the barriers to productive conversations about allowing some level of Internet access to inmates.”

An early techie and devout Muslim who grew up in a family of nine, Magassa dates his interest in prison policy back to his younger days in Harlem and encounters with formerly incarcerated people who were trying to put their lives back together. “I heard from people who were in and out of the prison system about how difficult it was for them to get anything accomplished in terms of jobs and a steady income,” says Magassa, who worked as both web developer and conflict resolution specialist at the Harlem Community Justice Center.

He turned a scholarly eye on the topic while earning a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from Queens College in New York, studying technological access — and the lack of it — in prison libraries.

In his work at the UW, the Information Science doctoral student is developing a model questionnaire in collaboration with the Washington State Department of Corrections. The tool, which he intends to roll out nationally, will identify the cognitive, social, behavioral, and emotional dimensions of digital literacy for thousands of prisoners. It’s an important step in addressing the digital divide inside, say those working with Magassa.

“The readiness of incarcerated individuals to meet the challenges of a digitally savvy world is an extremely crucial issue in corrections programs, as they are notoriously behind the rest of the world in digital training,” says Charles Kelso, director of education at Washington Corrections Center.

As one of 15 students chosen from a field of 1,300 for the prestigious 2012 Google Policy Fellowship, Magassa spent last summer in Washington, D.C., working for the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative. “OTI provided a platform to talk about these prison issues and understand what they looked like from a policy standpoint,” he says.

He is now working with OTI on a soon-to-be-released policy brief recommending that prisons use a staircase model in re-entry programs. Under this model, prisoners’ level of Internet access would be incrementally increased as they near their release date. To counter fears that inmates will misuse access for drug, gang, and other criminal activity, his recommendations include teaching responsible use, securing computers with filters, flags, and firewalls, and establishing sanctions for violators.

The 31-year-old — a powerful poet, motorbike enthusiast, and snappy dresser who color-coordinates daily suits and ties with his traditional Islamic kufi cap — arrived at the iSchool in 2010, leaving behind his beloved New York turf and an “awesome” big-city job as a web content specialist at the Association of National Advertisers.

He was drawn west by raves about the iSchool from alumnus Anthony Loum (MLIS, ’97), now Coordinator of Adult Services at Brooklyn Public Library, and driven back into research by his abiding passion for digital justice behind and beyond prison walls.  “I thought, ‘I can make a contribution not only to scholarly work, but to society. I can do something that has an immediate impact on the lives of everyday people walking city streets.’ ”

Story written by Mary Lynn Lyke for the iSchool.