The title of this blog post is not meant to be a joke. I am being completely serious. Inmates should be given the right to access computers and the internet, right? It’s a really important question. Although many people foolishly believe inmates have cable television, air conditioned cells, great cuisine, and outstanding athletic facilities, the reality, at least for most Texas prison residents, is about just trying to survive each day. However, I ask the important question about computers for reasons that have very wide reaching implications. Please allow me to explain, in a bit of a rambling sort of way…
When my brother and I were 8 and 7 years old respectively, our parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias. The set spanned at least 4 feet across, and was neatly tucked into a bookcase in our family room next to a dictionary and thesaurus. Generally, whenever we wanted to understand something, anything, our parents said, “Go look it up”. I never knew for sure if that response meant they had no idea or if they simply wanted me to take the initiative and go figure it out on my own. Now that I am a parent myself, I think the truth is generally a combination of the two.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, practically anything you’d ever want to learn could be found in those books located just to the right of our fireplace. More than a few of my school papers began with me reading the World Book Encyclopedia. I remember asking my parents why they had spent about a thousand bucks (a good chunk of money back in 1976) on those books. My mother consistently told me that people who took the time to learn what was in those books were the ones who had more opportunities in life. At age 7 or 8, that didn’t exactly get me very excited. However, my curiosity often led me to pluck a book and discover the answers to innumerable questions over the next 10 years. Often, my forays into those books had nothing to do with school, but was, instead, an effort to try to understand more and more about the world around me.
Today, encyclopedias are practically non-existent, aside from the occasional estate sale, where a complete set can be purchased for maybe $30 to $50. Today’s new, and vastly improved version of encyclopedias can be summed up in one word. Google.
We use Google today as a noun and a verb. Want to know how old President Obama is? Google it. Need to know how far you’ll have to drive to get from Dallas to Gatesville? Google it. Need to know the best way to make a meatloaf and then cook it? Google it. Google is a virtual world class university available to all of us, every day, 24-7-365. Wikipedia is a virtual encyclopedia within the larger internet community that, all by itself makes my childhood encyclopedias look pathetic by comparison.
With all the incredible online tools and resources for acquiring knowledge and information, we must ask why our prison population in Texas is never able to access any of it as long as they are incarcerated. That is a tragedy. It must be addressed, and the sooner the better! Most inmates in TDCJ spend at least a few years in prison, and many inmates spend a decade or more. We have over 150,000 minds and bodies serving prison time in TDCJ at any given time. This exceeds the combined student population of The University of Texas in Austin, Texas A&M University in College Station, the University of Houston, and Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Think about that for a minute before you read on.
Before anyone accuses me of wanting inmates to be able to sit and watch porn all day or chat online with 12 year old girls, I want to be very clear about something;
If we as a society expect people to go to prison in order to be “rehabilitated”, we must start by acknowledging that the more education one receives, both formal and informal, the more likely that person will be able to live in a productive, law abiding manner, respectful of laws, of others, and better equipped to deal with the challenges life inevitably brings.
I’ve read about the billionaires in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and although I am no tech wizard, I am positive modern technology includes the tools to inexpensively allow nearly all prisoners the vast benefits available online, while still giving the prison system the ability to keep prisoners from streaming live sex feeds into their cells, or any other such nonsense.
TDCJ’s Mission Statement is to “provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.”
In my opinion, if we are ever going to realize the goals of TDCJ’s Mission Statement involving the promotion of positive change in offender behavior and reintegration of offenders into society, we must start by acknowledging the role computers and the internet now play in our lives, and in our personal and professional development.