What happens when you combine increasing levels of Internet and digital literacy—and increasing societal expectations of said literacy—with the racialized mass incarceration taking place in the U.S.? In particular, considering that Internet and computer access are regulated and limited in federal prisons, what ramifications could this regulation have for inmates when they attempt to reintegrate smoothly into society?
At the beginning of the course, I mentioned briefly that I am writing my senior thesis on the current unemployment crisis, and the role the Internet has played in re-shaping job search and hiring processes. While I am not explicitly applying a racial lens to my thesis, the final project for this course offers a unique opportunity to examine the development of the online job market from the perspective of individuals who have been removed from the rapidly evolving online environment for an extended period of time. This topic first occurred to me when I came across a Buzzfeed article entitled “the Internet explained by Prisoners who have never seen it.” The article does not mention the implications of this phenomenon for race or employment, but for me, these came to mind immediately.
Overview of Racialized Mass Incarceration
Bobo and Thompson (2010) explain in their article “Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice, and Punishment,” not only that the rate of U.S. incarceration is “of historic proportions for a modern developed democracy,” but this recent upsurge in the prison population has disproportionately affected minority populations without just cause. Most notably, the article cites a 2008 headline that reads “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says” and points out that the same data could have easily been translated to headlines reading “1 in 15 African Americans behind Bars,” or “1 in 9 Black Men, age 20 to 34 behind Bars” (p. 327). Beyond the fact that these statistics are viscerally disturbing, the article makes several well-supported arguments regarding the fact that minorities and whites are being incarcerated at rates that do not correspond to their respective levels of crime, and that levels of racial bias correspond to the degree to which people prefer increasingly punitive measures (read the article if you haven’t!).
No Internet Mo’ Problems…
Given this information, it is reasonable to suspect that the lack of Internet usage in federal prisons up until recently (now I believe they are only allowed limited access to Email and Tablets) could be exacerbating existing socio-economic disparities between racial groups outside of the prison environment as well. Ex-inmates already face a stigma when attempting to re-enter the workforce, and it is likely that separation from the rapidly evolving Internet for even a few years would add an extra hurdle to this process. As Michael Santos writes on The Daily Dot, “We have handicapped our incarcerated citizens in enormous ways by prohibiting them from accessing the Internet. When I returned to society last August, I had never sent an email, never watched a YouTube video, and never accessed Google…other people I’ve met who emerged from prison after long periods of time don’t know anything about the Web. They were are scanning classified ads in newspapers, because they are too intimidated by computers.” After all, the Great Recession was the first recession in which Internet access in the U.S. was nearly ubiquitous, and in which the Internet was used for job-related purposes to such a high degree.
Bottom line: we know that prison sentences can act as a poverty-trap; now, it is important to ask if, and how, the Internet is compounding these effects. We’ve already talked about “digital ghettos,” but in potentially restricting ex-inmate employment prospects even further, the Internet could be contributing to real-world ghettos as well.
I look forward to hearing everyone’s feedback on my initial ideas, and hearing others’ topics too!