It will draw howls of protest from politicians and the punditocracy, but the time has come to allow Internet access in jails and prisons. It would open a world of new opportunities for prisoners and improve the fraught process of reintegrating them into society, all at nearly no cost to taxpayers.

Current rules permit all federal inmates and most state prisoners to send and receive emails through special, monitored systems. Starting late last year, some federal prisons began allowing inmates to buy MP3 music players and download songs to fill them. These systems​—​financed entirely by charging inmates per message and per song​—​work better than what they replaced. Unlike physical mail, email can’t be used to smuggle contraband. It also can be monitored automatically and doesn’t require staff time to distribute. The electronic alternatives also appear to be more secure. There are dozens of cases of inmates running criminal operations by phone or mail, but thus far, no documented cases involving email since the U.S. Bureau of Prisons began its pilot program eight years ago.

These technologies may soften life a tad for inmates, but they won’t make life in prison anything close to pleasant. Even at supposed “club feds” with attractive college-like campuses, inmate life remains tedious, isolated, and degrading, at best. At worst, violence is a constant threat, even in apparently placid institutions. In far too many places, sexual violence is endemic. And the problem isn’t getting smaller.

As part of the same “get tough” federal and state policies that have increased the number of people behind bars in the United States from about 300,000 in the late 1970s to more than 2 million today, legislative bodies have systematically eliminated perks prisoners once enjoyed. Weightrooms have vanished from all federal facilities and most state prisons; tennis courts have been closed; inmates in nearly all facilities must purchase headsets even to hear the audio on television programs; and the food is truly awful.

While prisoners certainly aren’t entitled to weights, good food, and television​—​much less Internet access​—​all these can serve important roles in helping run facilities safely and effectively. Idle inmates are much more likely to become violent, and taking away perks as punishment for misbehavior can be a useful stick to maintain control. The alternative, which many corrections officials embrace for lack of other options, is to implicitly outsource a fair amount of order-keeping to gangs.

Web access can help change the balance of power behind bars. Relatively simple Internet controls could allow prison administrators the ability to make distinctions between the access different prisoners may be permitted, unlike such privileges as television and athletic facilities, which can either be made available or unavailable. An ill-behaved inmate might only be allowed to receive emails from prison administrators, while a model inmate on the verge of release might be able to access a wide range of education, employment, news, and perhaps even entertainment sites.

The benefits of Internet access wouldn’t accrue just to inmates (who would have more opportunities for recreation and rehabilitation) or to prison administrators (who would find facilities easier to manage) but could also reduce recidivism. Employed prisoners tend to stay out of trouble (on average, 6 out of 10 inmates get rearrested within three years), and huge numbers of jobs are now advertised only on the Internet. Denying access to online job listings makes reintegration harder. With more and more news content available only online, there’s a strong case that simply keeping in touch with current events now requires access to the Internet.

Educational programs inside prisons would benefit the most. Right now, federal and state laws require prisons to offer GED courses, and most larger facilities provide a few vocational programs, as well. But for inmates who want to go further and complete college-level work or learn a trade not available in their prison, options have actually declined in recent years, as correspondence schools have moved to the Internet.

Internet-based courses also would be better suited to serving the broad range of educational levels​—​from subliterate to ready-for-graduate-school​—​that characterizes prisoners in any sufficiently large institution. A good Internet-based course is also generally going to be of better quality than the poor or indifferent instruction common in correctional facilities, while the cost taxpayers bear for GED and some vocational programs would likely decline with electronic delivery.

But even less scholarly uses of the Internet would be useful. Electronic books and informational websites would open up new opportunities to prisoners at no cost to taxpayers. At worst, this would simply prevent idleness, the main cause of violence behind bars.

To be sure, there are real barriers to allowing Internet access behind bars. Monitoring use and designing properly controlled and limited web-based systems present challenges. Most federal prisoners earn modest wages that would allow them to pay for Internet time, but getting to that point where effective monitoring is possible would still require someone to make an upfront investment. Then there is the risk of scandal that would erupt the first time inmates pulled an Internet scam.

All that said, allowing Internet access in prison makes sense: It would open up new worlds for offenders and offer them a better path towards rehabilitation​—​all at no cost to taxpayers.

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