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Manchester Evening News published a right-objectionable story that’s probably going to get some blood boiling. Thanks to Steve Silberman for alerting me to this via his virtuoso twitter feed (fine editorial nous).

In America there are gangsta’s, crack heads and wild kids. In Britain there are thugs, scallies and pill-poppers – these are broad categories and don’t describe much, but my effort is to say that the two countries have different types of criminal. It is my feeling that the extreme inequalities of American cities breed a certain type of hardened criminal, whereas Britain’s subtler inequalities breed a certain type of hardened idiot.

Few violent offenders have a sociological grasp on why they’ve made the choices they have and often their bare-faced contempt is hard for most folk to stomach. Kane Barratt is a case in point.

Barratt

This week, after recent sentencing for 5 and a half years, Barratt used a mobile phone to update his Facebook profile from his cell. He changed his staus, chatted with friends and posted two photos. After the Manchester Evening News told the Ministry of Justice about Barratt’s activity the page disappeared from Facebook. The phone was later confiscated.

I don’t want to glorify Barratt’s actions; he is a violent offender who wielded a machete and held it to his victim’s throats. Barratt shows no remorse only bravado in his Facebook antics. Paul Dillon, Barratt’s last victim pondered, probably quite accurately, “He’ll probably come away from this with all his mates thinking he’s some kind of hero.”

That said, Prison Photography‘s charge is to discuss all modes of photographic production within sites of incarceration: “If a camera is within prison walls we should always be asking; How did it get there? What are/were the motives? What are the responses? (Prison Photography ‘About’ page)

Well, Barratt’s camera phone got there because it was not confiscated . One presumes he wasn’t searched at a key moment. I’d suggest the motive was to stay in touch with his friends outside, take the piss (to a degree) and generally showboat when oversight was lax. Predictably, victims and authorities were left aggrieved, offended and embarrassed.

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In Britain, as in America, mobile (cell) phone use is banned behind bars. Wired with the aid of Andrew Hetherington recently ran an article on the smuggling and underground economy of cell phones in California. As did Newsweek. I theorised that prisoners strategic adoption of cellphones is the most serious threat AND damaging maneouver to decades of prison management policy. Mobile communications render obsolete much of the advantages brought to controlling prison populations by segregation.

I teach at a Washington State prison and I am generally disheartened by the lack of access prisoners have to books. By law, state departments of corrections must provide access to libraries, but opening hours and actual physical access (within the institutional regimen) are not consistent. Even when prisoners can get to the library, nearly all learning is self directed. Prisons offer GED programs but only one prison in Washington State (Monroe) offers college courses. I believe only one prison in California (San Quentin) offers college courses.

Nowadays, access to a computer is as essential as access to a library for learning. So, while I understand the need to confiscate phones, I don’t want to see all internet connectivity denied. Ideally, internet would be available to prisoners without compromising security. Social networking would certainly be ruled out.

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But even if correctional departments could tailor their own prison firewalls, the structure of Web2.0 – and its embedded networking functions – would still allow manipulation by the minority of seditious prisoners. The likelihood of widespread internet access in US prisons is very small.

This situation alone is cause for some chagrin. If one accepts that computers and networks are essential components of contemporary life then their absence within sites of incarceration forges yet another chasm between the life inside and the life of anticipated release.

But then again, in a week when I had glue sticks confiscated on entering the prison, speculation on the provision of internet in prisons is far from the realities of prison life and, regretably, far from relevant …

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