|Inmates and Computer Access: Good or Bad
|By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
There are five common goals in sentencing, Retribution, Incapacitation, Deterrence, Rehabilitation, Restoration. When an individual is sentenced to imprisonment, the institution’s goals are keep them safe, keep them in, keep other inmates/staff safe, and somewhere in the mix rehabilitate the offender and prepare them for release. Not too long ago the idea of giving inmate’s computer access was batted around, particularly considering the educational aspect it brings to a facility. It is one additional tool that could be used to rehabilitate the inmate. This idea has grown dramatically.
We now have the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), a new program currently being deployed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which is expected to be at all facilities by June 2011. The program provides inmates with limited access, specifically, the capability to send and receive electronic messages without having access to the Internet. No federal inmate has Internet access.
States are also following suit with similar programs. At least one state, Kansas, has taken it a step further by allowing limited electronic banking, e-mail and video family visitations. Clearly, there is a move by some to give inmate’s Internet access beyond just e-mail. Some countries, like Australia allow prisoners to have lap top computers in their cell.
Part of this push is apparently cost savings. It costs less to deal with e-mail communication as opposed to opening and reviewing snail mail. Monitoring is still obviously a component of all these programs. If an inmate were to write something inappropriate the information would be flagged, stopped, and dealt with I am sure before being sent out.
However, what about coded messages? Apparently, some states are on top of that too with someone assigned to review messages for hidden “codes.” I wonder how successfully they will be in preventing coded messages sent via e-mail from getting out or being received. Imagine the volume of messages being sent. The TRULINGS program above has a limit for messages of 13,000 characters (approximately two pages). A person can hide a lot of coded messages in 13,000 characters, especially if they spread the entire message out over numerous e-mails.
We also have at least one case where an inmate successfully broke into prison computer systems and stole identity information on prison personnel. We have inmates smuggling in cell phones into prison. How hard would it be to smuggle a USB thumb drive with the tools needed to “hack” a prison computer or system?
Even providing computer training to inmates carries an element of risk. Recently, an inmate with word processing skills honed in prison, completed the task of creating a nice annual report on the prison’s operation for the institution. The same inmate, after released, used those same skills to develop a nice bogus prospectus and convinced at least one victim to give them investment funds on a non-existent company.
Ironically in the not too distance future, you will have inmates allowed to access a computer while in custody, but upon their release they will not be permitted access due to special conditions. The caveat is of course access can be granted if the community corrections officer is prepared and able to monitor that use. Many are not. So the fall back positions is no computer or Internet access. How will that fly? The released offender has less privledges for electronic communication than the inmate. Someone is going to put that in a legal brief soon.
I am not arguing that the access is Good or Bad. I just wonder, what the rules/guidelines are for these things. Not the specifics of what is going on, just some general, no nonsense rules for making sure we “keep them safe, keep them in, keep other inmates/staff safe, rehabilitate the offender and keep the rest of us safe from acts committed inside and outside of the prison walls.
Maybe it is time we get a handle on this trend. As such I invite readers to post what correctional facilities are doing regarding inmate’s 1) computer; 2) e-mail access; and 3) Internet access. Give me the good and bad of it. Don’t forget to include the state/facility.
Department of Justice, Victoria, Australia: Personal Computers in Prison, Retrieved on November 16, 2010, Personal Computers in Prison 
Think Outside the Cage: Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Retrieved on November 16, 2010 from Email In The Pen: Kansas 
Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), Retrieved on November 16, 2010 from What is TRULINCS? 
U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, Retrieved on November 16, 2010 from INMATE ARRESTED FOR HACKING PRISON COMPUTER 
"Art Bowker has over 25 years experience in both law enforcement and corrections at the state and federal levels. He has been an Executive Committee Officer for the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (htcia.org) numerous times and is also on the Technology Committee for the American Probation and Parole Officers Association (appa-net.org). He has a Master of Corrections degree from Kent State University. Follow Art on Twitter.com at:(http://twitter.com/Computerpo)
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