When a Lack of Access Is Censorship

When a Lack of Access Is Censorship by Tess Wilson

When my colleague and I heard about the concept of bringing coding classes to incarcerated populations, our ears perked up.[1] Immediately, we set to work planning our pitch to bring this service to our own community. As outreach librarians who serve folks at the county jail, we are always eager to increase the range of programs we offer. Currently, our work includes a set of career skills workshops, movie discussions, parenting classes focused on early learning, and facilitated storytimes during family visits. We began to think about the logistics involved in bringing a coding class to fruition, and our conversation went something like this:

There's a wonderful group of local developers who created an approachable introductory coding curriculum, and they offer it freely. Let's take advantage of that resource and bring it to the jail.


Could we use the desktop computers in the classroom at the jail to deliver this curriculum?

They don't have internet access.

Okay, could we bring in laptops from the library?

The jail doesn't have a network we could connect to.

How about our hotspots?

That would have to be approved by the Warden.

At the end of the day, we concluded that our curriculum might have to be delivered on paper; this digital literacy would have to be taught by analog means.

Navigating creative avenues to access in facilities like this one—and the roadblocks along the way—are not new to me. As a Teaching Assistant in Chatham University's Creative Writing MFA program, I taught creative writing classes through the Words Without Walls curriculum. The classes we brought to the county jail ran from six to eight weeks, resulting in a "public" reading celebration and publication of the students' work. We had conversations like this one often, and found workarounds that met our community's needs. We printed pages upon pages, we used the instructor-only computer to watch videos, and we transcribed written work from our students. Flexibility is a necessity in this educational environment; this proved to be as true for librarians as it was for teachers.

However, this specific circumstance forced me to think more critically about the other workshops we offer within this facility. In the career skills workshop, we talk at length about online job applications and offer best practices. We encourage students to create an email account dedicated to their career search, and we emphasize the convenience of using an email service that automatically grants access to a cloud-based drive. We reiterate the online tools and databases that are available for free through a library account.

As is required by this set of environmental circumstances, we came up with workarounds to overcome the absence of internet access. We provide a printed resume worksheet with space for students to fill in skills, experience, education, and references. This way, as we explain in class, their information will at least all be in one place when they are eventually able to transfer it to an online format. We distribute tip sheets that address common pitfalls when filling out online applications. We bring a current copy of the Occupational Outlook Handbook and legal guides for job seekers with criminal backgrounds.

Of course, these are all valuable resources for our students. But the irony of receiving a printed copy of a tip sheet for filling out online applications is not lost on them. In this case, a lack of access to information is a subtle form of censorship that results in stagnation of digital literacy. And in a capitalist society that demands we continually move up the career ladder, this suppression of information keeps a large portion of the population from taking the first step. Ross Sempek wrote about these consequences in a May 2019 post about banning books in prisons for the Intellectual Freedom Blog. As he explains it, when incarcerated people are denied access, "they are denied the very foundation of the society in which they are expected to exist once released."[2]

The idea of offering a coding class was exciting to us because of the potential doors it might open for our students. Coding, or at least some fluency in coding language, is a skill valued by employers across disciplines. After all, there is a reason countless coding bootcamps are popping up around the country, and why many educators push for coding to be incorporated into elementary school curricula. In an Edutopia interview with MIT Media Lab professor Mitch Resnick, he suggests "the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium."[3] This specific instance exemplifies the issue at the crux of censorship within the context of incarceration. In the Information Age, a county jail can easily become a time capsule. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's David Maass puts it in a 2016 article by technology journalist Dan Tynan: "...that leaves millions of Americans not only incarcerated in a cell but also frozen in a pre-internet world."[4]

I am not the first person to think critically about this aspect of education within incarcerated communities. Not by a long shot. Just as educators and outreach staff must embrace flexibility in our curriculum planning, many organizations and companies are currently thinking creatively to find their own workarounds to grant access to incarcerated populations. In some cases, special tablets have been developed as a way to provide limited access to useful databases. However, the cost of these services often falls on the individual and can be prohibitive. As one East Jersey State Prison inmate notes, he has "had to choose 'between writing emails and purchasing food or other essentials from the commissary.'" [5] Unfortunately—in a blow to the core tenants of intellectual freedom—approaching access in this limited way inevitably results in the moralization of information. Chris Grewe of the American Prison Data Systems encountered this during the process of developing the Five Keys program at the San Francisco County Jail. His team had to come up with "a safe and secure platform that could let the good parts of the internet in while excluding the bad things" before prison officials would grant approval for tablets to be introduced into their facility.[6]

Dan Tynan poses a vital question in his aforementioned article, and it bears restating here: "...if internet access is a human right, should prisoners have it?"[7] We could not do the work we do without staff advocates within our local county jail and national organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and countless others that fight to increase access in prisons and jails. But that question is becoming more relevant with every passing moment, and we are leaving people behind by not addressing it through purposeful policy changes. If we hope to address issues like recidivism, we must take this lack of access seriously and understand that its effects compound exponentially as the world becomes increasingly digital.

[1] Alec Shea, "While California is teaching inmates to code, other states ban them from teaching themselves," Muckrock, August 2017, www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2017/aug/17/prisons-coding-ban/

[2] Ross Sempek, "Intellectual Freedom for the Incarcerated," Intellectual Freedom Blog, May 2019, www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=17824

[3] Stephen Merrill, "The Future of Coding in Schools," Edutopia, December 2017, www.edutopia.org/article/future-coding-schools

[4] Dan Tynan, "Online behind bars: if internet access is a human right, should prisoners have it?" The Guardian, October 2016, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/03/prison-internet-access-tablets-edovo-jpay

[5] Diana Kruzman, "In U.S. prisons, tablets open window to the outside world," Reuters, July 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-prisons-computers/in-u-s-prisons-tablets-open-window-to-the-outside-world-idUSKBN1K813D

[6] Tynan, "Online behind bars"

[7] Ibid.

Tess Wilson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the National Network of Libraries of Medicine - Middle Atlantic Region. She currently serves as the YALSA Blog Manager, presents workshops as a privacy advocate with the Library Freedom Project, and has been a regular contributor to the Office of Intellectual Freedom blog. Previously, she was a Guest Editor for the Fall 2018 issue of YALS, a recipient of the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Judith Krug Education Award, and a member of a United for Libraries task force addressing generational inclusion in library interest groups. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and her MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh.