As the vast majority of government information goes digital, it becomes more accessible to many segments of the population that may otherwise not be willing or able to invest the time and energy to travel to a repository or track the documents down through other means. K-12 students working on projects for civics class or stay at home moms living in rural areas are now able to do research from exactly where they are on their computers. As physical documents and physical space become less restrictive we are seeing government information as it has always been intended, accessible, democratic and for the people. In the flurry of excitement surrounding this new level of transparency and access it is easy to forget what a large segment of the population has no access to the Internet whatsoever.
In a recent National Telecommunications and Information Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access 40% of Americans surveyed said they have no household high speed internet access, and 30% said they have none at all. While we can most likely assume they have some level of access via school, work or the public library. However, the vast majority of prison inmates have no access whatsoever. In a rapidly advancing and ever more digital world, inmates spending any length of time away from computers will certainly find themselves left in the dust upon re-entry into society. Some facilities recognize the value of increased access, as both an educational and community engagement, Matt Kelley wrote about the expansion of Internet in Kansas State prisons In most prisons around the country however, prison librarians serve as the main point of access to information for all inmates. For those seeking to better understand sentencing, that often means requests for copies of legislation and other government information. One of the most highly requested bills at a DC area prison of late has been the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789) which reduces the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine. The flurry of press coverage following its signing this past summer led to high requests of the legislation itself by prisoners looking to understand its impact.
While the argument can be made that those who have broken the law deserve punishment, not the privilege of surfing the web, I firmly believe that if prisoners are expected to productively rejoin society and improve themselves direct access is essential. Hopefully, eventually more states will go the way of Kansas, but in the meantime, prison librarians must continue the difficult and commendable work of disseminating information.
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