Once a week, Annie leaves her job at a nonprofit, pulls back her hair and scrapes off any makeup to volunteer at California’s oldest and most notorious prison: San Quentin.
She drives past some of the city’s most luxurious houses in California’s affluent Marin County to get to the Spanish-style prison complex. It looks like any modern correctional facility — cold, unfriendly, industrial — except it sits on prime waterfront property, forming a striking contrast against the natural beauty of the Bay.
When San Quentin was established in 1852, its founders chose the site for its then-barren, forlorn landscape. The chill and dampness of the sea winds, they thought, was ideal for an isolated group of criminals and miscreants.
Inside, the walls are untouched by decorations and adornments, flanked by heavy doors made of thick, durable glass and metal. Sounds echo loudly down the hallways, accompanied by a pungent chemical, astringent fragrance — a scent of industrial-strength solvents used to clean the filth.
Checkpoints are plentiful, and everyday objects and furniture are unexpectedly locked or bolted to the floor. In some rooms, metal cages keep more complicated inmates under control.
When Annie isn’t tutoring inmates on GEDs and SATs, she helps them fill out applications for colleges and financial aid packages. The reformed prepare to re-enter society, while the others play ball in exercise yards outside, past a picturesque and serene grove of eucalyptus trees that overlooks the graveyard, where plots of San Quentin’s most notorious residents lay marked with simple, wooden headstones.
Annie says despite San Quentin’s draconian and isolated look and feel, it actually functions much like a school — albeit a very clinical, restrictive school — where staff and volunteers help inmates meet the challenges of life outside those prison walls.
While it’s easy to put a distance, both geographically and psychologically, between the unwanted and civilization, she tells me, eventually they need to be reintegrated in the population, and that’s proving especially difficult amid the fast pace and growing influence of technology.
Annie says the hallways in the part of the prison she taught at felt eerily empty, but deeper in the complex, she knew the reality was different: cells overcrowded and overflowing with repeat offenders.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the nation’s prisons are at 99 percent capacity, and despite a falling crime rate, the federal and state inmate population has risen to a high of 1.6 million prisoners in 2009, from over 300,000 inmates in 1978.
The greater issue of overcrowding, though — combined with curtailed freedom — is the corrosive element and tense situation for both inmates and prison guards. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that crowded facilities are a pressure cooker situation, sowing not just higher levels of violence and racial tension, but also spread discontent and disease. Tuberculosis rates, for example, are 100 times higher in prisons than outside those walls.
It also crowds out rehabilitative programs, like Annie’s, which address one of the roots of burgeoning prison populations: turning inmates into productive citizens who can return to society, and hopefully, stay from coming back. That’s a big problem for wardens. According to a Pew report, two-in-five inmates nationwide return to jail within three years of release, often because they face the same poverty, limited prospects and weak support networks that caused them to turn to crime in the first place.
Besides the revolving-door problem, an increasing prison population, of course, cost taxpayers more money: in California alone, each inmate costs about $47,000 a year to house, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. With states and federal government spending more than $74 billion on corrections each year, CNBC reports, prisons have a vested interest to rehabilitate inmates and not just to punish and isolate them, and that means teaching skills — including how to handle and interact with technologies we take for granted in society.
When Annie began volunteering nearly a decade ago, e-mail was unheard of for all but the most model prisoner. But today, prisons recognize the importance of technology to help inmates rejoin the workforce. Not only does it give them necessary skills, it strengthening and re-establishing family ties, which reduces the likelihood of returning to jail.
But for obvious reasons, wardens are wary of technology and its connection to the outside world.
Still, some solutions give limited access, while minimizing the dangers that come with it. According to the New York Times, inmates have corresponded on computers since 2005. But instead of e-mail and the Internet, they use a parallel, highly-monitored system, called the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System, or TruLincs.
Inmates can use TruLincs to send messages to a short list of pre-approved e-mail addresses. Prison staff reviews all e-mails before they’re forwarded to another system, called CorrLinks. Recipients must then log into CorrLinks to acknowledge the receipt of the message, much like accepting a collect call.
The service costs five cents a minute — money, which prisoners earn by doing jobs or given as a gift by family members — so the system doesn’t use taxpayer dollars. The fees from inmates, along with income from telephone use and the commissary, go into the Inmate Trust Fund.
Critics, though, argue that facilities need access to technologies so inmates can keep pace with society, especially as we increasingly lean on technology to work, play and communicate. That’s the idea behind a pilot program to bring restricted tablets to prisoners in Ohio, North Dakota, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Michigan, Washington and Florida. For $50, inmates, or their family members, can buy stripped-down Kindles to send monitored e-mails and listen to music, according to USA Today.
Proponents say the tablets not only teach inmates the proper use of electronic media, but also strengthen all-important ties to families and communities, creating a network to support them once they get out of prison. They can reach out to family and loved ones, and connect with organizations that can help them get a job once they’re out. Monitored contact keeps their morale up, as well, giving them motivation to get and stay out of prison.
But these programs aren’t without controversy — victims’ rights organizations worry the devices could be used in ways that compromise public safety. After all, smartphones are popular contrabands, smuggled by family members and even corrupt lawyers and prison guards to help criminals maintain their organizations and activities.
In fact, just last spring, a slate of Baltimore prison guards were convicted of smuggling drugs and mobile devices to help high-ranking members of the notorious Black Guerrilla Family to conduct criminal activities while behind bars. The case, which exposed a deeply corrupt and weak correctional system, saw female guards exchange sex, phones and drugs for money and status in the underworld.
According to ABC News, inmates would use the smuggled phones to warn fellow prisoners of impending cell searches, arrange sexual encounters with female guards and conduct gang-related dealings with members still on the streets.
Those that fight the integration of technology try to contain inmates in a bubble. They see gadgets as the ultimate privilege of an affluent society, and a dangerous tool in the hands of criminals. But its influence inside prison walls, as on the outside, is an inevitable force that’s transforming every facet of society.
Even if inmate access to technology is debatable, it’ll transform their environments in more immediate ways, whether through tracking systems or to upgrade aging infrastructure.
For example, California’s Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County — the nation’s fifth largest prison with 4,000 inmates — uses solar panels, wind turbines, a fuel cell and a battery-storage system to generate 80 percent of its energy needs, saving taxpayers about $100,000 a year.
It also uses a robotic tracking system to maximize effectiveness of the solar-grid. These “sol-bots” pull more power out of each panel by ensuring each unit soaks up the maximum amount of sunlight.
“[Sol-bots] autonomously move the solar panels according to the project locations local sun tables, enabling the optimized tracking regime,” Paul Breslow, associate director of marketing of Qbotix, which designed the system, said.
Meanwhile, Matthew Muniz, program manager at Alameda County, said the Qbotix system generates 10 percent more energy than expected. “Jails are energy intensive operations and will continue to be the focus of efforts in reducing costs,” he added. “Robotics in general can significantly reduce the cost of solar installations, thereby making solar even more cost-effective.”
Santa Rita uses robots to not just ferry laundry, but also to transport meals to its more than 12,000 inmates each day.
Instead of using technology to reform and upgrade, others take a conventional approach, and see it as a tool to further isolate. For those, biometrics and RFID is the answer.
The idea is simple: 24-hour tracking, anytime, anywhere. When an inmate wearing a RFID bracelet enters a prohibited area, for example, an alarm sounds. RFID makes it possible to monitor and count every inmate in the prison, allowing staff to quickly respond in times of crisis or escape.
But the enormous cost needed to equip the overflowing prison populations with tracking units is a big hurdle. With bureaucratic battles flaring over simple expenses, like e-mail and tablets, such a high-tech vision is far off in a distant future. Despite that ominous nature of technology, prisoner rights’ activists, like Annie, say if it is used with good oversight, it can become a powerful tool for inmates and the system that oversees them.
Ultimately, the growth of technology is a natural outgrowth of the burgeoning corrections industry. Prisons are big business, with billions to be made by healthcare, technology and contracting businesses alike. In the U.S. alone, prison systems employ over 750,000 workers with every new incarceration creating 26 jobs, according to CNBC.
With such lucrative sources of revenue, some worry there is little incentive to reform the criminal justice system, with its harsh drug penalties, draconian sentencing and lack of rehabilitation programs — all of which add to an overflowing prison population.
Annie no longer volunteers in prisons. She’s a mother of two living in an idyllic town in the Bay Area, and the only applications she helps fill out now is for prospective pre-schools for the toddler twin girls she has with her lawyer husband.
In her younger, more activist days, she was often asked why she chose prisons as the subject of her considerable energy and passion as a community organizer. Some volunteers are motivated to fight draconian laws and a flawed conviction and court system, but Annie says her reasons are more personal. She believes that the way we think about prisons and criminals offers a fundamental test of our view of human nature.
Are we able to reflect and acknowledge our mistakes? Are we able to change our lives and our futures? Or do we think of human nature as fundamentally savage, so criminals must be controlled, punished and isolated, far away from the general population?
Of course, it’s never black and white. Prisons, in many ways, must balance both of those perspectives. San Quentin, for example, runs several programs to help rehabilitate inmates, including the nation’s first prisoner-run newspaper. But it also houses the state’s only gas chamber, a reminder to its citizens of the fate that can await the worst of them.
Prisons must navigate that tenuous balance: they’re not just places to isolate inmates from society, they’ve evolved to become institutions we use to reform them. Technology within prisons — both by inmates themselves and by the wardens and staff that oversee them — can serve both ends. Which end wins out, though, will depend on how those in power see and shape the lives of the punished. ♦