Give inmates fair Net access

MacDougall Correctional Insitution in Ridgeville on Thursday February 25, 2010. (Wade Spees/File)

The South Carolina Department of Corrections announced late last year that it will experiment with letting some inmates use special video calling kiosks to stay in touch with loved ones on the outside.

In-person visits can be tough for some family members due to limited access to transportation, busy personal schedules and long travel distances. Multiple studies have shown that prisoners who maintain contact with family and friends in the outside world have lower recidivism rates.

And recidivism is unfortunately a huge problem. Roughly 25 percent of inmates released from South Carolina prisons will return behind bars within three years.

In theory, helping inmates maintain better communication with the outside world could reduce crime rates and save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Not to mention the humane goal of helping those prisoners who serve their time keep their freedom safely and lawfully upon release.

Video calls could go a long way toward achieving those goals, particularly when combined with an emphasis on in-person visits.

But the program's surprisingly high cost - inmates will be charged $10 per 30-minute video call after a brief trial period - underscores an increasingly complex question facing prisons nationwide: Should prisoners have access to the Internet?

After all, Skype chats are free and require only a computer with a microphone and video camera - both standard features on even the most basic laptops currently available.

Rather than contracting with a company that installs costly proprietary equipment for video calls and relying on exorbitant prisoner fees to cover those expenses, prisons could set up a computer lab using second-hand equipment at very low cost.

Prisoners are officially denied all but the most basic online access out of concern that they might use the Internet to harass victims, coordinate criminal activities or even plan escapes and riots. Those concerns are founded in plenty of real-world examples of inmate abuses conducted with the aid of contraband cell phones.

To be clear, cell phone access should be strictly and categorically prohibited.

But the Internet has become a crucial tool for any person hoping to function in modern society, and preventing inmate access substantially limits their employment options upon release. Some prisoners serving long sentences that began before the Internet became commonplace have never been online before. When their sentences end, they will face a technologically unfamiliar world - one that increasingly relies on online expertise.

Internet access could also be a powerful tool for maintaining order inside prisons by serving as a privilege that can be granted for good behavior.

While contraband cell phones offer unrestricted Internet access and unsupervised contact with the outside world, regulated Internet access is in many ways easier to monitor than traditional phone conversations or written correspondence. Keystrokes can be recorded, web histories monitored, questionable sites filtered and all data saved indefinitely for easy consultation as necessary.

Providing a measure of Internet access is far from offering a prison "luxury." For prisoners not expected to die behind bars, some familiarity with computers and the Internet will be a critical life skill.

Video calls are a smart step in the effort to reduce recidivism, but they should be considered a testing ground for a broader, less expensive and ultimately more effective tool.

It's time to consider allowing inmates to limited Internet access - under the watchful eye and the close control of the Corrections Department.