Many holiday shoppers will go to stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, and the Apple Store to buy the latest technology for their friends and family. Their purchases will include iPods, laptops, Blackberrys, and digital cameras. Would you believe that some Americans are asking for typewriters and cassette players this holiday season? Would you believe that some having been saving for these items for years and still desperately want them? For the more than one percent of Americans that are incarcerated, iPods and computers are beyond their reach. The technology available to inmates is the technology that Americans on the “outside” last saw decades ago. Some inmates in American prisons have never used a cell phone or the internet. They are in a technological time warp and some will soon return to the outside world, a world that has rapidly progressed in its technology while they served their time behind bars.
The items that prisoners in Illinois are permitted to have are determined by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). The Department’s main concern is safety—both of the staff and of the inmates. Computers and devices like iPods, which hold the capacity to exchange and store large amounts of information, are too complex to be regulated by the IDOC. However, though inmates do not have access to computers, it is recognized that inmates need to be able to produce readable documents as many inmates appeal their case. At Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, typewriters can be ordered through the prison’s commissary. The commissary was founded in 1930 and it offers the latest technology available to prisoners like the Sintec 2410 typewriter for $279.54. The typewriter is specifically designed for use in prisons, made with clear plastic to deter inmates from trying to conceal contraband inside the machine. Other items on the commissary product list include art supplies, beverages, clothing, shoes, towels, blankets, electronics, food, games, housewares like bowls and mugs, toiletries, vitamins, and office supplies. The most expensive item is the typewriter; the least expensive is a legal envelope for 16 cents.
Inmates place a written order with the commissary and the commissary employees, some prisoners, fill the order. When inmates make purchases, they must pay in full. Loans from the state are no longer available unless an inmate can prove that they have no contacts on the outside that can offer them financial assistance.
Companies are profiting on the restrictions placed on prisoners’ possessions. Special typewriters, calculators, electric fans, and electric razors made of clear plastic are produced specifically for the prison population. Companies like Music by Mail and Pack Central offer current music on cassette tapes. CDs are not allowed because they can be broken and made into weapons.
One Stateville commissary worker called the purchases of commissary items a “survival tactic.” He explained that inmates do all that they can to make it through their time behind bars. Depending on the inmate, that can mean immersing oneself in case study, trying to build a strong appeal case, creating art, or enjoying a daily Pepsi. The commissary gives inmates options and though these are minor options, for some it’s what they need to make it.
But what happens when inmates are released into a world of technology they’ve only seen on TV? One former inmate who spoke to our class shared that he had to relearn to do the simplest things, like use keys. How do we expect released inmates to succeed in today’s society without pre-release training in today’s most common technology? As we increasingly become dependent on computers, the internet, and wireless connectivity, we need to consider the effects of incarceration on an individual’s ability to function and contribute to society. We must provide assistance for inmates’ transition between decades of technology. Just think: most inmates have never had the opportunity to do what you’re doing now as you read your screen.