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'It made me feel human again'': the tech easing inmates' isolation

The Guardian, April 18, 2020.

Access to technology is essential for prisoners, writes former inmate Michael Baldwin Jr – and coronavirus has only heightened the need

While the majority of the US maintains some form of social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus, people in prison across the US remain more isolated than ever.

Federal prisons in the country are in the midst of a lockdown, as the spread of coronavirus leads to riots inside and struggles to curb the disease’s spread. Advocates say the inability to receive visitors means there is also unprecedented need for access to technology for prisoners.

“Even in calmer times, draconian limitations on social media access are dangerous and raise serious first amendment concerns,” Mark Rumold, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, wrote. “As the pandemic unfolds, state agencies should take a flexible approach to enforcement of restrictions on inmates’ ability to connect with the outside world.”

On 6 April, the technology company Securus announced it would provide free messaging services on its JP5 tablet at more than 600 facilities across the US, to allow inmates to stay in contact with loved ones outside the prison during the Covid-19 crisis. The company has more than 290,000 in use across the country.

While the high cost of such technology has been the subject of criticism, inmates say the importance of access is undeniable – especially today. Human rights groups have demanded that such devices should be free for all incarcerated people for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.

“People in jails, prisons, and detention centers are extremely vulnerable populations in terms of censorship and exploitation by prison profiteers like Securus and GTL”, Michelle Dillon, public records manager of the Human Rights Defense Center said. “Especially during a global pandemic, it is crucial that prisoners retain access to tools for connecting to information and their communities, and that these tools be made available without exorbitant price tags”.

Michael Baldwin Jr, 48, knows the reality first-hand. He has spent more than 20 years incarcerated and now works as a director at a prison advocacy group. This is how access to technology changed his life.

I went to prison in 1992 with a life sentence. Once I got inside, I quickly began to adapt to the environment. To survive, I had to adjust to being incarcerated. I lost touch with my children. I lost touch with many of my family members.

For many people in prison, not knowing how technology works can become the catalyst of sending them right back as soon as they get out. If you don’t know technology when you come home it’s like moving to China without knowing Chinese. It would be difficult for someone to thrive in that environment without someone holding their hand and helping them navigate.

In the tablet I found my missing piece – I found what I needed to be able to be motivated by my role as a father, to really strengthen my education and to strengthen just me as an individual – and, eventually, to find my way back to freedom.

Eventually I started to look inside myself and try to change myself. I wasn’t in prison because I was a nice guy – I was in there paying for crimes I committed. I needed to learn responsibility. But many things were still missing because I was completely disconnected from my family. When I finally got access to a secure tablet, it helped me to start bridging the gap between me and my children and become whole again.

I had spent 22 years in prison – so technology was something that was completely foreign to me. I didn’t know much about texting or emails, because I went to prison at the end of 1992 – there wasn’t very much technology at that time.

Meanwhile, my children were growing up in an era where there was great access to technology. It didn’t allow for us to communicate well, because they do not know how to write letters. But they can text you, they can email you.

Once I got the tablet, I was able to contact one of my sons and he immediately was able to start communicating with me. He shared my contact with his siblings, my other children, and it opened up the door for us to be able to really have a dialogue for the first time.

The first videogram I got was of my son and my grandson. I hadn’t had any interaction with my son [since I went to prison]. And now to see my son with his son, in a videogram. I sat for days just watching my tablet, watching this video of them interacting with each other over and over. It made me feel like I was a human being again. Now, I was human, I was a father. I was actually experiencing the feeling of being a grandfather before I ever even touched my grandson.

I was sold on the tablet immediately. Many of my peers were, too. It even changed the way that we interact with each other. In prison, sometimes the wrong type of look from somebody can create a violent situation. But now, guys would start to avoid confrontations because they did not want to lose access to their tablets. It changed the whole dynamic.

There was definitely a learning curve. When I texted my children I didn’t know what these letters like “lol” and “smh” meant. But I was quickly adapting and learning. Knowing what an email was, knowing what an app was or what a text was gave me a bridge back to society for when I got out.

I used the tablet for music: hip-hop, oldies, jazz and some rock. I also used it as a library and have a wide variety of self-development books and audio books on it. I enjoyed reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. My favorite were the meditation sounds. I could be at the beach while sitting on my bunk. It made my snoring bunkmate tolerable.

Now that I am home, I still use the tablet for the music and books I downloaded.

The tablet was allowing me to have a stronger relationship with my children, as well as equipping my mind with what I was going to need to make it back into society one day.

I was released from prison on 18 October 2018, and I took my tablet with me. Today I work at a law office for one of the attorneys that represented me. I’m also a professional development trainer for the Modesto school district. I’m also a member of the NAACP as well as the ACLU.

I work along with a couple of prison ministries that help bring hope and healing into the prison system. But my biggest goal is to put technology in the hands of our nation’s inmates to reconnect families and rehabilitate inmates.



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