Re-entry barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals in a digitally driven worldVeronica Khaikin
According to a study by DeFina and Hannon (2009), mass incarceration over the past few decades increased the U.S. poverty rate by approximately 20%. Justice-involved individuals are more likely to reside in low-income neighborhoods which are subject to higher surveillance, policing, and arrests (Reisdorf & DeCook, 2022). Consequently, a person with a low socioeconomic background is generally unable to post bail or pay for a lawyer, which may extend their time in prison and increases the risk of losing their job or connections to their communities (Reisdorf & DeCook, 2022). These challenges are compounded by the fact that individuals with a criminal record often have trouble finding employment upon re-entry which increases the likelihood that they will fall into poverty.
The Institute for Research on Poverty highlights that the rise in incarceration poses a particularly high risk for traditionally marginalized communities, as a disproportionate number of the incarcerated population are people of color. A 2021 report released by The Sentencing Project reveals the following statistics on racial disparity in rates of incarceration:
- Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at roughly five times the rate of White Americans; and
- Individuals of Latin descent are incarcerated in state prisons 1.3 times the rate of White individuals (Nellis, 2021).
According to the United States Sentencing Commission (2017), Black Americans serve 20% more prison time than White Americans for the same offense.
Having trouble finding employment or receiving lower wages leaves formerly incarcerated individuals unable to support themselves or their families upon their re-entry. In fact, with a lack of support from re-entry programs, individuals who are unable to find stable work within a year of re-entry are ten times more likely to experience homelessness (Tanner, 2021).
According to the United States Sentencing Commission (2021), the average sentence imposed for federal offenders was 147 months (12.25 years) as of March 2021. Those who have been incarcerated for longer periods of time require extra support for re-entering a changing society; readapting themselves to find employment and housing, continue their education, and receive medical care and legal assistance (Tanner, 2021). In a technology-dependent society, these re-entry goals can rely heavily on the use of the internet and information and communication technologies.
Justice-involved individuals residing in low socioeconomic communities are typically more likely to experience digital inequalities before serving time at a correctional facility, as they may lack access to the internet and technologies at home (Reisdorf & DeCook, 2022). As technology continuously advances, even those with shorter sentences will fall behind on digital skills while serving time at a correctional facility without internet access (Reisdorf & DeCook, 2022). Re-entry into society requires understanding on how to use the internet, which is a major challenge for formerly incarcerated individuals who have become accustomed to life offline.
Lack of digital rehabilitation upon re-entry to society
As society evolves and becomes heavily dependent on technology, formerly incarcerated individuals are often excluded from being active citizens due to the digital divide. The digital divide is the inequality experienced by certain individuals due to barriers accessing and using information and communication technology (Zivanai & Mahlangu, 2022). Digital inequality is described to be felt as a “distinctive pain of modern imprisonment” (Zivanai & Mahlangu, 2022). Despite society’s continuous advancement, formerly incarcerated individuals are predestined to get left behind in the digital landscape.
Although there are technologies like tablets currently available within U.S. correctional facilities, they are used to replace free essential services that have well served justice-involved individuals in the past, such as law libraries, physical books, and postal mail (Finkel & Bertram, 2019). Often these tablets are far more limiting than beneficial, as there is a cost to read e-books or use tablets to make video calls instead of in-person visits (Reisdorf & DeCook, 2022). There is a clear contrast between offering tablet technology for beneficial uses and offering it as a costly service justice-involved individuals cannot afford. Once formerly incarcerated individuals enter their parole period, they may find it difficult to meet the requirements of parole, such as finding employment, securing housing, and applying for government services, due to their lack of experience navigating email or using computer applications (Reisdorf & DeCook, 2022). Individuals with unstable housing can also be at risk of losing their belongings due to a lack of secure housing.
The digital divide as a barrier to re-entry originates from the lack of digital transformation in offender rehabilitation policies and practices.
As society has increasingly transitioned to relying on technology for essential services, corrections policies and practices must align offender rehabilitation with the digital transformation (Zivanai & Mahlangu, 2022). The internet is, for example, the most effective means of educating justice-involved individuals, and research shows that individuals participating in correctional education programs are 43% less likely to re-offend (Bagaric & Hunter, 2016).
Implementing digital rehabilitation into the re-entry process can help improve the quality of life of formerly incarcerated individuals relying on technology-dependent services that could influence the trajectory of their life moving forward. To achieve this, the criminal justice system must find a balance between security concerns and penal power and setting up formerly incarcerated individuals for reintegration by teaching fundamental digital skills (Zivanai & Mahlangu, 2022). These future-driven actions can help reduce the impacts of economic hardship and digital exclusion among justice-involved individuals and provide them with opportunities to grow from the past.
Interested in learning more on topics discussed in this blog? Visit the resources listed below:
Bagaric, M., & Hunter, D. (2016, November 15). Give prisoners internet access for a safer and more
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POVERTY. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.irp.wisc.edu/resource/connections-among-poverty-incarceration-and-inequality/#_edn8
DeFina, R., & Hannon, L. (2009). The impact of mass incarceration on poverty. Crime and Delinquency,
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Finkel, M., & Bertram, W. (2019, March 7). More states are signing harmful “Free prison tablet”
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Nellis, A. (2021, October 13). The Color of Justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. The
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Tanner, M. D. (2021, October 21). Poverty and criminal justice reform. CATO Institute. Retrieved
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society: A systematic literature review on the new reality on prison rehabilitation. Cogent Social Sciences, 8(1), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2022.2116809