Prison programs target tech literacy of inmates

tech literacy

San Quentin State Prison in California runs a tech literacy program to prepare inmates for life on the outside. Credit: Julie Vader

Forget about missing pop-culture references, television programs and fashion trends. Long-term prison sentences can also cause inmates to fall behind in tech literacy, especially as innovations transform work and social norms at a rapid-fire pace.

Being kept in the dark about technological advances means prisoners are deprived of the most effective ways to look for jobs, learn employable skills — and engage with loved ones, their communities and society at large.

It’s an issue facing many of the 2.3 million prison inmates in the United States, many of whom will face a host of other challenges related to starting anew on the outside.

Pagers to cell phones

Gizmodo last year profiled rehabilitated prisoner Michael Santos, who penned an engaging and moving piece on the technological challenges he faced when re-entering society after completing a decades-long sentence.

Santos recounted the jarring experience of attempting to understand the cultural shift from pagers to cell phones, desktops to laptops and the advent of social media.

“Technology could really help me succeed, but since I don’t understand how to use it effectively, I’m kind of in a lost world,” he wrote.

The technological revolution shows little sign of slowing, which is why programs promoting tech literacy in prisons have become especially crucial.

Lessons on tweeting

San Quentin State Prison in California — one of the country’s oldest — has developed a reputation for launching some of the most forward-looking initiatives for rehabilitating inmates.

One of its most prominent programs is The Last Mile, which organizers say “helps bridge the gap between incarceration and freedom.” It’s regarded as one of the first comprehensive tech-literacy programs for prison inmates in the United States.

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Chris Redlitz founded The Last Mile in 2011 to reduce recidivism and inspire healthy ambitions.

The six-month program affords qualified prisoners paid internships that involve

working with Silicon Valley tech companies on developing ideas for business ventures and new ways of supporting aspiring entrepreneurs who are incarcerated.

There’s even a final project at the end of the program giving participants the opportunity to present their business ideas and plans with proposed technological strategies mapped out.

Engaging with the public

A key section of the program teaches social-media interaction by encouraging inmates to write blog posts and tweet — with the appropriate monitoring.

Funny, serious, inspirational and confessional, the posts under @TLM give inmates a rare forum to engage the public and express themselves.

“My choice; my responsibility; win or lose, only I hold the key to my destiny,” one inmate said on Twitter recently.

Another professed admiration for Tumblr founder David Karp.

“I think that when I realize my dream I will probably dress like the CEO of Tumblr. Casual and Cool,” an inmate wrote.

The Last Mile also uses the website Quora, which publishes inmates’ responses to questions posted on the site. Volunteer facilitators vet and post the replies. Most queries pertain to life in prison.

Inmate Larry Histon recently fielded a question asking, “Are there tech areas you still don’t fully understand?”

“I’d appreciate getting information that would help me better understand the technical differences of the interface between the Internet and mobile devices,” Histon replied, his response reflecting the breadth of the digital divide between inmates and society.

Katie Manderfield
Katie Manderfield is a writer, producer and digital strategist based in New York City. She specializes in thought leadership, emerging trends, and cultural intersections. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider and on NPR.
Katie Manderfield
Katie Manderfield
Tags: Business,Education,Social Media