By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
The stories on the Connected Life Exchange frequently focus on the importance of bringing broadband access to the Internet where it’s needed most -- underdeveloped countries, rural communities and under-served areas. While broadband in and of itself cannot boost an economy, it’s a fundamental element in improving both education in the public sector and opportunity in the private sector.
But there’s one demographic segment of the population in the U.S., the UK, and undoubtedly in many other countries, that doesn’t have Internet access, and is unlikely to have it soon: prisoners.
On the one hand, the ban is understandable. According to this February, 2010 article in The Guardian, prisoners using smuggled smartphones posted taunts on the Facebook pages of their victims. On the other hand, how is society supposed to fight recidivism if it doesn’t train prisoners scheduled for release on the basic skills of the 21st century?
Arguably, they have access to computers, and that helps with basic applications, but when was the last time you could do your job without Internet access? There’s a big difference between learning how to drive in a classroom and getting behind the wheel of a car.
Connected Life Outlook, after Incarceration
“It’s a tough issue,” says Chris Redlitz, founding partner of Transmedia Capital, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, who works with prisoners at nearby San Quentin prison. “There’s a big concern about unsupervised communications. Where do you draw the line on access?”
In the interim, then, several programs exist to do what to the connected world might seem impossible: teach prisoners how to use the Internet without actually giving them access to the Internet. It’s been said that being forced to work without resources forces you to be highly creative -- and that’s exactly what’s happened.
Back in 2005, a man named Neville Cavendish, a Relationship Manager in the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, began working with Cisco to create Prison Information & Communication Technology Academy (PICTA), which offers Cisco Networking Academy (CNA) courses in UK prisons.
Initially set up in 16 prisons, the program has expanded over the last seven years to include 36 prisons in the UK and one in Ireland, with 2,200 students taking part in that time. Cavendish estimates that by 2020, some 90 percent of jobs will have some technological component to them, so he strongly believes that fighting recidivism starts with education.
One of the star graduates of the program is Sean Kelly, who, in his words “misbehaved quite a lot as a youngster” and ended up in London’s Wandsworth Prison (for more on Kelly, see this interview). There, he entered one of the Cisco CNA programs. Upon his release, he went to college and now plans to be a network engineer.
Skills Development within a Managed Cloud
More recently, Redlitz started the Last Mile program at San Quentin, which may be even more ambitious. He had met some volunteers at San Quentin socially, he says, and realized that there were similarities between what he did with entrepreneurs and what might be done with prisoners. “Working with entrepreneurs is different, but there’s a lot of talent and passion behind bars that can be nurtured, one person at a time, the way we do it in venture capital.”
The six-month-long program has three tenets: (1) educating a group of six men about how the world has changed since the creation of the Internet (which none in the group have ever seen); (2) discussing how entrepreneurs think and make businesses work; and (3) having them create a business plan and a pitch, the same way any entrepreneur would, at what Redlitz calls Demo Day, which took place last May.
“The talent level is amazing. Some of these pitches were as good or better as any of the ones I’ve seen in my office,” says Redlitz. “Guys who haven’t seen the Internet have to be that much more imaginative to create something viable.” His favorite was called Coach Potato, a screen app that lets people watching football games communicate with each other interactively.
The first group was so successful, Redlitz has increased the group to ten prisoners this time, but will limit it so that the interaction can be as personalized as possible. Last Mile is also working on a new computer curriculum that will allow it to increase numbers to 25 students from the prison.
And, with the unqualified support of Matt Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Gov. Jerry Brown, the program is being replicated at Folsom Prison (made famous by singer Johnny Cash).
With the success of programs like PICTA and Last Mile, the question of broadband access for prisoners is going to keep popping up. Currently, the San Quentin prisoners write everything they want to post in social media in long-hand, and others input into computers for posting on blogs, on Twitter, or on Quora, a question-and-answer site, with all content being moderated. “It’s given them a voice, and exposed a lot of people to how these guys feel and some of the issues that exist in prison,” says Redlitz.
While Redlitz acknowledges that you don’t give prisoners the ability to run an illegal enterprise from within prison walls, “there may be opportunities for some prisoners to have limited access for research. It’s not a bad idea at this point. We’re trying to create a qualification so those who get to a certain point that they have the opportunity for access.”
One wonders why, if certain global governments can limit the Internet access of their citizens, why a prison couldn’t use the same technology to limit network access for those incarcerated there. Even caching a series of Web sites on a restricted system (like a private cloud), disconnected from the outside world, would give prisoners a sense of how the Web -- and the underlying network infrastructure -- actually works. It seems a simple step to bring an under-served population into the 21st century.