Bars Behind Bars: Digital Technology in the Prison System

Arguelles, Paolo; Ortiz-Luis, Isabelle

With little opportunity to engage with technology while behind bars, returning citizens are finding themselves on the far side of the digital divide and increasingly vulnerable to recidivism. Investing in a well-run digital literacy program for our prison system is an innovative solution to a persistent problem and a rare win-win situation for inmates, prison officials, and American taxpayers.We begin by discussing how inmate tablet distribution programs mutually benefit both inmates and prison officials. We then explore prison profiteering by technology companies as a potential obstacle to the successful administration of technology programs, discussing the emergence of virtual monopolies in the prison technology space, their history of controversial pricing practices, and how these practices are perpetuated through prison tablet programs. We then present novel insights into how competitive bidding can be used as a public policy instrument to regulate competition, specifically in the context of prison technology. We argue that a traditional bidding framework is insufficient to act as a policy instrument and propose an alternative incentive-based framework toward this end. We conclude by outlining several practical recommendations that prison officials should consider when administering digital literacy programs in their facilities.