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Time to reconsider computers in prison? | John L. Hill

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 @ 12:45 PM | By John L. Hill


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John L. Hill %>
John L. Hill
During the school closings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I watched my niece and nephew, Ben and Abbie, continue their education sitting in front of a computer screen. Education is a key component in rehabilitation. How were inmates of Canada’s federal penitentiaries faring while lockdowns continue?

Computers may be purchased by federal penitentiary inmates but are strictly monitored so that they cannot have access to the Internet or be repositories of pornography. Yet in some penitentiaries in the United States there is regulated access to the Internet. Canada has relaxed an absolute ban to allow unrepresented inmates the ability to research their cases and review disclosure documents when involved with the courts. But limited time in a supervised setting and the numbers wanting access restricts the effectiveness of this ability of access.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has issued a statement that the promotion of digital literacy is key to adapting to a world driven by technology. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) recognizes that it has a legislated mandate to rehabilitate prisoners by ensuring access to programs that will give them the best opportunity to act as law-abiding citizens upon release. How can this be done if the inmate upon release is not “street ready” and remains digitally illiterate?

The CSC has plenty of ammunition to oppose loosening of computer restrictions. I recall an incident at the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary where a staff computer was donated for purpose of inmate use but CSC failed to erase the hard drive. Someone was able to send all inmate records to the Kingston newspaper. Terrible consequences can follow if an inmate discovers another inmate has a record for an offence like child molestation or police co-operation. In another instance, a call centre was allowed to operate at a medium-security penitentiary in Ontario where the callers were inmates accessing potential buyers across Canada and the United States and taking down personal information such as credit card numbers. The operation was shut down soon after a shocked parole board panel discovered its existence.

But if computer access is a human right and an aid to rehabilitation, how can inmates safely use it? Perhaps technology will provide the answer. If it could be proven that a computer or its router could be engineered to prevent abuse, would it open the doors to acceptance within the fences of a federal penal institution? And supposing such evidence were available, is it up to the courts by way of a declaration or an administrative challenge to order its acceptance? In an Ontario case, a self-represented inmate put the issue of use of computers before the court R. v. Bancroft [2020] O.J. No. 6036. Justice Michael March expressed the usual concerns and accepted them as valid. He said at paragraphs 293-295 of the judgment:

Internet access is strictly denied for obvious reasons within correctional facilities. Knowledge is power. Information gathering on fellow inmates is dangerous. The prisoner, who could be a click away from uncovering details on another inmate, is fundamentally unacceptable from an institutional security standpoint.

However, limited access to permit online, legitimate legal research may be achievable. A court of law however cannot be asked to engineer the means to accomplish this goal. To force governments to do so through Charter relief is not the answer.

Policy is for elected officials, correctional authorities and prisoner rights advocates within the penal system to develop, to implement and to prioritize.

With a pending federal election, it is hard to imagine that any political party would indicate support for loosening restrictions to Internet access even though development of computer literacy could decrease recidivism. Although there is much to be desired by using computers as our school system is now doing for youngsters, it is a decision that will probably have to wait for policy makers to approve in a correctional setting.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at johnlornehill@hotmail.com.

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