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Cyber-risk: Can Corrections Get it Right?

Computers and corrections (in the community and behind the walls),  is really getting some headlines recently. The thread that appears to running these stories is “risk.” Is there a risk with offenders and computers and if there, is how do we manage it? Let’s start with the case that is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, Packingham v. North Carolina.

Lester Gerard Packingham Jr., a  convicted North Carolina sex offender, who was no longer under any form of supervision, posted a message “”G-d is Good” on Facebook after a traffic citation was dismissed. Problem is in North Carolina all sex offenders are prohibited from accessing social media.  His conviction has been appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.  A decision is likely this month. The question is can a sex offender, even after he has served all of his sentence, be prohibited for using social media? Does their risk trump the Constitution?

The next story comes from New Jersey. A sex offender on lifetime supervision was completed barred from accessing the Internet by his parole officer. It is unclear if the officer had tried monitoring/filtering and/or periodically computer searches before imposing the complete prohbition.The New Jersey Supreme Court struck down the condition noting that:

access to the internet is a basic need because most job seekers these days need it to find and obtain work.”

Gee, I wonder how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in imposing Internet restrictions on sex offenders who completed their sentence (I am betting it gets struck down). Now the next two stories represent that even prisons can not stop offenders from accessing the Internet. In the first case, federal sex offenders, in custody, swapped child pornography using smuggled cellphones and data cards. Apparently, they were in a low-security prison, where they were able to work in tandem, to defeat staff’s supervision of them.

In the next story Ohio inmates built their own computer and used the prison’s Internet access to download hacking programs and carry out identity theft. Apparently, some of the inmates were part of a detail working on disassembled computers for a contractor. Unfortunately, they were not supervised and were able to build their system. They also were able to connect to the prison network and to power, all undetected.  The last two examples are cases where offenders, presumedly under a much higher level of supervision were still able to find a way to get connected. It appears corrections staff underestimated their “risk.”

Corrections appears to have trouble understanding risk when it comes to computers. They either overstate it or understate. I recently got forwarded a request from a corrections professional asking how to teach high risk offenders Internet safety because they were posting inappropriate things online and getting in trouble. I took this to be a request of “can we teach felons to lock up their social media profiles so they stop getting in trouble, particularly with their supervision officers?” Really? Is that what we want, high risk offenders who can’t be monitored online? I think not.

There is a fine line that many in corrections can’t seem to grasp in managing cyber-risk. They either go over board, such as with complete bans, which aren’’t always upheld, or they go the other way and ignore the risk. We need to get this right and soon. I have been absent from this column for too long and maybe, just maybe, I need to resume writing about these issues. On that note, I left a cigar lit somewhere. Be safe out there!

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