The divide between prisoners and the outside world is slowly breaking down, and not just because of the legions of Jeremy Meeks fans trying to smash through prison walls to get their hands on him. Though they are supposed to be isolated from society, increasingly inmates are entering cyberspace: Contraband smartphones are prevalent in many prison, and the resulting glimpses of life behind bars suggest that jail isn’t always as ruthless as Oz& made it look. Even Wiz Khalifa is getting in on the act.
There are now even a few incarceration facilities where prisoners are allowed access to the internet. These are mostly in Europe, but the phenomenon has spread, as indicated by by the Alexander Maconochie Centre, Australia's first "human rights prison." The argument for putting information technology inside penitentiaries is sound: Studies indicate that doing so helps facilitate a prisoner’s smooth transition back into society. Moreover, it prevents those who were incarcerated before social media blew up from getting hostile when they see people instagramming their breakfasts.
But most prisons don't give internet access to inmates, which presents some problems for iExpress, purportedly the world’s first social media site for the incarcerated, which was recently started by an Australian named Brett Collins. The site will depend on a system of old-fashioned letter writing that will allow iExpress users to maintain online profiles and communicate with others around the world, even if they can't touch a laptop.
I caught up with Collins to find out more about helping inmates enter the digital age.
VICE: What are the goals of iExpress?
Brett Collins: We wanted to make a new area of cyberspace that contributes to society. The psychological toll of prison life can be markedly improved by utilizing the dead time in cells. By giving inmates an outlet to test their ideas and get feedback, they are more likely to assimilate after being released.
I feel like it should have initially come from the government, but corrective services are primarily concerned with preventing breakouts. This stuff is is never considered.
I understand it’s mostly illegal for inmates to use the internet in Australia?
Internet access is provided in prisons in the Australian Capital Territory. Outside of that, Australian prisons do not allow computers or smartphones. We ask inmates to map out their profiles and then we upload them for them. We then print out any messages on their pages and provide this back to them.
But isn’t social media kind of trivial? Why is it so important for prisoners?
To add some necessary depth to how they are perceived. At present, people define prisoners by their crimes, i.e., “he’s the thief, he’s the murderer.” It’s a one-dimensional assessment based entirely on the judge’s verdict. Their skills and aspirations are never considered. People can now see there’s more to these people and, indeed, that some of them are making an effort to redeem themselves.
Secondly, it’s been argued that the internet is a fundamental human right. Jail is a restrictive environment—in Australia inmates spend 18 hours a day in their cells. That’s time that should be applied to something more productive, both for their well-being and their impending release.
What was it that inspired you personally to pursue this?
I spent ten years in prison in the 70s and have been working for this community since then.
I hear iExpress is being investigated by corrective services?
They are concerned that victims might feel resentment from the prisoners having their voices heard. We have assured them that this is not the case. We actually offer victim organizational support.
Victims predominantly want to feel safe, but they also to understand why the inmate has wronged them in the first place. The expressions from inmates on iExpress have actually been helpful for many victims. Oftentimes the inmates are expressing guilt or remorse, which can help to alleviate the victim’s trauma.
Have there been any other hurdles?
There’s one recent challenge that has surfaced. Initially, we wanted to run things like incoming prison mail: Complete freedom of speech outside of anything illegal. Recently though, we’ve received some very aggressive emails. By letting those through, we were vilifying the inmates. We decided to introduce the same censorship [standards] as Facebook, i.e., no abuse, threats, or defamation. iExpress is intended to be a positive platform.
Do the inmates themselves have to be censored in similar ways?
Some inmates were going into too much detail about the nature of their crimes, or speaking about themselves in a derogatory manner. We tell them to cut back if we feel it’s promoting a harmful image. We otherwise give them complete freedom with their profiles.
How do you prevent potential communication between gangs or criminal associates?
Nothing illegal is permitted, the same as with prison letters. There’s no more potential for this in iExpress than in standard mail. If inmates breach this, we give them a warning. If they repeat the offencse they’re banned.
Are there any trends with the demographics of users?
There’s certainly more interest from the educated inmates. They’re the ones who have grasped it and understood the potential.
Val Chalker, the sister of murdered Sydney woman Yvette Rathbone, came out against the idea. She said that her sister’s killer, John Meyn, “needs to face up to what he's done rather than have a public forum to express these views." What’s your take on this?
John Meyn he has two children and he’s serving a life sentence. He made a fatal mistake, though I feel his profile promotes a positive message. At the end of the day, the community wants to know that after the sentence, this person isn’t going to repeat their mistakes. I think profiles like his can encourage this belief.
Some victims would prefer the perpetrator was dead. That’s an understandable feeling. The reality is that a victim’s pain is something they have to personally overcome. The sooner they can come to terms with this, the sooner they can get on with their lives. The offenders still have certain rights that cannot be undermined by those of the victims.
There’s a mounting number of studies showing that the positive effects of inmates getting internet access. Do you think they will be given unabridged internet access in prisons anytime soon?
Absolutely. We’re sure this will be brought in across Australia and the rest of the world in near future. The studies indicate a very positive result from information technology in prisons. Until it is introduced, though, iExpress is a bridge between the digital world and that of reformatories.
You can check out iExpress here.