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Technology Can Be the Real Game Changer in Corrections

Almost 30 years ago, Congress conducted the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in more than 60 years. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was intended to empower competition and innovation in local and long-distance telephone service. But only a few years after it was signed, these parts of the law became largely obsolete as consumer use of local and long-distance telephones diminished due to the explosive growth of the internet and wireless networks.

As someone who has worked in this policy space for decades, I wonder now if we are seeing something similar in a more specific market segment: corrections. Policymaking in the last 10 years has been squarely focused on lowering the cost of phone calls inside America’s prisons. It was an important issue for the FCC to take on, and we’re now seeing the results. Phone calls in prisons today are more affordable than ever before, and we’re even seeing states choosing to make calls free to consumers through public funding. These long overdue developments will significantly improve the lives of incarcerated individuals and their families.

However, while it’s necessary to continue focusing on prison phone rates, it seems that the greatest potential to change the lives of incarcerated individuals doesn’t come through a hardwired phone bolted to a wall. We can now provide incarcerated individuals with secure tablets. Just like how Americans across the country replaced their hardwired phone in the kitchen with mobile phones and powerful Internet voice applications, broadband technology can now provide much more than just a voice line to incarcerated Americans.

Maintaining relationships with loved ones is proven to reduce recidivism rates and produce overall better lives post-release. Tablet-based video calls can replicate face-to-face environments and strengthen incarcerated individuals’ relationships with their support systems.

But are we doing all we can to seize this transformative moment? For decades, incarcerated individuals have lived in America’s most arid digital desert. Although states have rolled out advanced technology to school buses, first responders, and many other segments that should benefit from public investment in broadband, incarcerated populations have been left out of this transformation.

Nevertheless, there is hope as public-private partnerships slowly start irrigating these deserts. These partnerships offer broadband networks that foster greater connectivity and communication for incarcerated individuals, particularly when friends and family live hundreds of miles away.

Maintaining relationships with loved ones is proven to reduce recidivism rates and produce overall better lives post-release. Tablet-based video calls can replicate face-to-face environments and strengthen incarcerated individuals’ relationships with their support systems outside of the correctional facility, even leading to an increase in the number of in-person visits after video calling is introduced.

Incarcerated individuals can use their tablets to access digitized educational materials, job skill materials, and re-entry content, as well as motivational and inspirational content.

There are over 2.7 million children in the U.S. with at least one currently incarcerated parent, and communication technologies allow these parents and children to maintain a family bond despite physical limitations. Research studies indicate that children with strong family attachments have overall better emotional health, and regular calls or emails with an incarcerated parent maintains that bond by keeping that parent involved in their child’s day-to-day routine.

These networks not only facilitate better connections, but they also facilitate the delivery of content. Incarcerated individuals can use their tablets to access digitized educational materials, job skill materials, and re-entry content, as well as motivational and inspirational content.

Incarcerated individuals who have access to facility-approved tablets are now able to enroll in financial management classes. This is just one example of how tools made available through tablet devices allow soon-to-be-released individuals the ability to connect with potential employers and significantly improve their chances of successful re-entry.

Let’s provide everyone inside a facility access to the tools we know make a difference. Broadband technology — not hardwired telephones – can be the real game-changer in rehabilitative justice, if we match policy to potential.

Of course, making this technology available requires a great deal of investment in infrastructure and platform development, and experience in providing robust and secure networks and tablets in a uniquely challenging environment. It also requires thought on how to provide tablets and online services in a way that maximizes benefits to the user.

Today, more than ever before, opportunities to change lives inside corrections facilities are moving at the speed of wireless and fiber optic technologies. It’s time we seize these opportunities and solve a generational challenge like no other. Let’s provide everyone inside a facility access to the tools we know make a difference. Broadband technology — not hardwired telephones – can be the real game-changer in rehabilitative justice, if we match policy to potential.

Jeff Carlisle is the former Chief and Deputy Chief in the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau and has spent more than 25 years in the wireless, satellite, and cable communications industry. Currently, he is a member of Lerman Senter, PLLC, a telecommunications-focused law firm in DC.

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