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Wiring the Joint: Prisons and Art Online

This is what I want: for some computer manufacturer to donate one low-end personal computer full of productive software to every inmate in prison in the United States, to take with him or her upon completion of sentence.
Mike Mosher

Issue #24, February 1996

This is what I want: for some computer manufacturer to donate one low-end personal computer full of productive software to every inmate in prison in the United States, to take with him or her upon completion of sentence.

The idea follows in the tradition of Apple Computer, winning valuable progressive mindshare when it donated an Apple II to every school in California. The prison donation would affirm current conventional wisdom that you have to know technology to survive in the Information Age. Despite the vile amendment that Representative Dick Zimmer (R, NJ) added to the Violent Crime Prevention Bill of 1995 to prohibit ownership of personal computers by Federal prisoners, it would stand up for the forgotten ethic of prisons as places of rehabilitation rather than simply punishment and the warehousing of bodies. Sentenced under laws from the 1980s seemingly written with little purpose but to stimulate the growth of the corrections industry, the majority of prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes such as drug-dealing or theft.

As I look again, a cracqueleure of contradictions covers this ambitious plan.

While one might hope every public school prisoner in this country has their own computer first, prisoners are often functionally illiterate, and grade school reading software might give them a second chance to use the time being served.

Even the once-elegantly intuitive and simple Macintosh interface has swollen with capabilities that try my own literacy. Would prisoners be able to jump through the hoops that computer use requires, or quickly give up in frustration? Would floppy disks be readily available, or their sharp styrene plastic and metal parts deemed too easily shaped into flesh-cutting weaponry? How about laser printers, though prisoners' newspapers and publications so often fall afoul of the authorities? Would passage by a prisoner of information on disk to a lawyer be protected information, requiring a subpoena to be read by the state?

If indeed we return to a world of comparatively dumb terminals whose purpose is to access greater cyberspace — the vision being put forth by both Oracle Corporation's CEO Larry Ellison and engineering workstation builder Sun Microsystems — then by implication the computers in the joint would have to have access to the Internet. It might take a philosophically rich legal action to secure this, for a plaintiff to claim that imprisonment only requires physical isolation and does not imply virtual.

Would the institutions permit Internet videoconferencing software like CUSeeMe? The little camera could then serve as one more surveillance device, your Personal Panopticon node.

Charging prisoners for their access time during Internet use would teach a hard (perhaps the fundamental economic) lesson — the meter's always running — usually overlooked in privileged universities or corporations.

It would be logical to expect that if Internet e-mail were permitted but monitored, the prohibition of warden-proof secure transmissions would only promote encryption. Copies of Phil Zimmerman's PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) would circulate around the yard like cigarettes. Porn, ubiquitous in prisons, would be much appreciated in online form and variety......unless its BBSs and sites were blocked by providers like CompuServe.

Access to law libraries has been consistently upheld by state and federal courts as necessary to enable prisoners to prepare their own representation and petitions. With case law and opinions increasingly shifting from text form to electronic versions, it seems inevitable that prisons will have to provide inmates with computers just to remain at current levels of legal information provision.

To date the greatest expansion of prison-related websites today has come in the pathetic form of sites like death row homepages and the campaign against capital punishment. An online movement to stop prisoner rape makes one wonder why there hasn't been significant discussion of this issue earlier, on the outside.

Personally I'd much rather see tax dollars spent teaching prisoners at their own PCs how to write, DTP, hack or learn data entry than housing them in their current graduate schools of advanced crime skills. But now the data entry jobs have been sent overseas, following the manufacturing jobs that probably sustained the inmates and correctional staff's parents. Compounding this industrial irony, one of the few prison-related cybersites available advertises Prison Blues, the denim clothes business housed in the Eastern Oregon state prison (boasting "made on the inside to be worn on the outside").


So what of prison arts, motivated by the ethic that personal creativity enhances self-respect, self-esteem and consciousness of possibilities?

Electronic artist Mark Wagner in California has recently worked with prisoners through a service agency, William Jones Associates of Santa Cruz. Two more electronic artists, Sue Harris of Glenelg, South Australia, and Avi Rosen in Israel have recently worked with prisoners. Graham Harwood's work with the inmates of Ashworth Maximum Security Mental Hospital in Great Britain — "serial killers to rapists, potential suicides, and casualties from the excesses of society" — is currently being developed into a CD-ROM by BookWorks. My own sole experience with the incarcerated includes the painting of murals in 1982 covering the walls of the visitors area at San Francisco's County Jail #2, obliterated five years later when jail administration changed. In Germany, Georg Muehleck of Stuttgart wanted to set up computers with Internet access for inmates in Schwaebisch Hall prison as part of a permanent art project, permission for which was denied on the grounds (a concept worthy of Marcel Duchamp, or Fritz Lang's master criminal Dr. Mabuse) that chess moves could be used to encode plans for jailbreaks or heists! Authorities based this on past prison arts experience of prisoners using scanners and PhotoShop to manipulate legal documents. Before Americans or others sneer at German correctional policies, note that prison windows at that facility were redesigned without bars to allow a better view of a stained glass artwork installation.

Apple did well by doing good in its donation of an Apple II to each school, creating mindshare, loyalty and jump-starting the educational software market for that machine. Although Apple's exiled founder Steve Jobs continues to brag about it, officers in the corporation voiced regret about the Apple II donations a decade later, which had led to such loyalty on the part of teachers that it was difficult for Apple to market them the more powerful Macintosh.

These are vindictive times and grandstanding Congressbully Zimmer just wanted his name in the papers, so he kicked the easiest-to-scapegoat group of nonvoters while they are down and out. Sentencing reform in order to free up space for violent offenders in overcrowded prisons might see the rise of a sort of info-permeable house arrest.

Yet large parts of the American public upset at prisoners pumping iron would be just as upset at seeing them drag and click. At a time when low-tech chain gangs are making a comeback, high-tech hardware in the cells represents privileged and liberatory empowerment not deemed a prisoner's due. I discussed my idea for computers in the joint this fall with some co-workers in a software development company and elicited anger — "No, don't give them computers; they've been bad, they're supposed to be GROUNDED!" I posted the same idea at a gathering of computer scientists, and was met with incomprehension. Ultimately, the issue of computers in the joint is as fraught with political contradictions as in contemporary online life on the outside.

Mike Mosher remains innocent, if only on a technicality.

Copyright © 1996 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.