March 2016

The Nation Reviewed


By Oscar Schwartz
Internet access in jails

At 7.57 am, while eating breakfast, I receive a WhatsApp notification. It’s a message, 16 seconds long. “Hello, my friend,” a man says in a sonorous voice. It is hard to pin down the accent, but if I had to guess I would say Egyptian. “First of all, uhhh, I don’t know you,” the man continues. “How do I know you are in prison? Can you send me a picture or a video from your cell, of the door, of your windows? Because you could be a cop also, you know? First you prove you are in prison, then we talk farther, OK?”

I listen to the message a couple more times, and then reply with a text. “I’m not in prison. I’m at home in Australia. But I’d still like to talk to you, if that’s OK.” Almost instantly another voice message arrives.

“You want something and I want something. So let’s talk. Call me.”

I place a call through WhatsApp, and the man answers. “Hello, my friend,” he says. I never find out his name. He runs a 83,000-follower Instagram account called 187gangstersz from inside a prison in Holland. The account posts videos taken by men and women on phones smuggled into prisons around the world. The videos are shot inside their cells, and generally simulate gangster-rap videos. The prisoners showcase their contraband items – drugs, cash, jewellery, elaborate meals – often while dancing to hip-hop music.

The man in Holland tells me he started the account with eight friends who have all done time or are still doing time for cocaine trafficking. “We are businessmen,” he insists. “We give people what they want to see: drugs, cash, weapons. People want this gangster shit and we want followers.” He says that he’s monetising the Instagram following by selling hoodies and caps. “We are like a tech start-up, but in prison. I am not 18 anymore, brother. I am 40. I’ve done ten years’ prison already. I’m not looking to escape. I’m looking to make money.”

The legality of internet access in prisons differs from country to country, and is a reflection of each government’s theory of justice. In the United States, for instance, where the focus is more punitive, access to the internet in high-security prisons is almost always denied. In Norway, where prison is more part of a restorative process, controlled internet access is seen as a way of keeping prisoners educated and engaged with the outside world. In 2014, Norway’s incarceration rate was 72 per 100,000 people; in the US it was almost ten times that. Norway’s recidivism rate has dropped to 20%; more than 75% of American prisoners will be arrested again within five years.

While the vast majority of jurisdictions in Australia do not permit prisoner access to the internet in any form, facilities in Tasmania and the ACT recently introduced secure and limited access to online educational and legal resources. Prisoners in Tasmania can access the same learning management system – Moodle – that I used as an undergraduate a decade ago. They can also access the internet, while strictly supervised, for educational purposes. The Alexander Maconochie Centre in the ACT, which happens to be the first Australian prison built in accordance with international human-rights obligations, allows direct access to a list of pre-approved websites.

These secure network systems, though, are more like educational CD-ROMs than “the internet”. Anyone who has socialised online knows that the web – from the original chatrooms to Snapchat – is not merely an endless library but also a social landscape for new types of self-expression and identity formation, a place where, as American author and professor Sherry Turkle notes, we are authors not only of text but also of ourselves.

Prisoner advocate Brett Collins, who served ten years in New South Wales prisons for bank robbery, tells me that self-expression online is just as important for prisoners as it is for any other demographic. In 2013, he launched iExpress, a website that allows prisoners to create and curate their own public online profile. It’s like Facebook by proxy: via telephone or post, the inmate communicates to Collins how they want their profile to look, and then Collins logs on to his computer and updates the page. The service is available for free to prisoners in any prison in Australia and New Zealand.

Julian Knight, who is serving a life sentence for killing seven people in the Hoddle Street massacre in 1987, has a profile up at iExpress that anyone can see. There are photos of Knight as a young soldier, one of him in a boxing gym in prison, a few links to some of his poetry, and a dictionary of Victorian prison slang that he has compiled. Of course, because Knight does not have access to the internet, he cannot view his own profile. Many of the prisoners who use iExpress, like Knight, are aware that if their name is googled it will return only details about their crime. “A profile at iExpress lets them present themselves more roundly, even aspirationally,” Collins says. “They can emphasise their strengths, rather than their regrets.”

Benji Gersh, who works as an educator for incarcerated youths at Parkville College in Melbourne, tells me that self-expression online is such an essential part of his students’ lives that, once inside and entirely disconnected (staff aren’t even allowed to wear smartwatches in the facility), some will call friends from the communal telephone and give them instructions as to how to update their Facebook profiles. As a teacher, Gersh feels constrained by the lack of connectivity in the classroom, and is concerned about the disorientation that comes with being suddenly disconnected. Yet he is also realistic about why access is denied. “If I was a victim of crime and the person who perpetrated the crime contacted me, even just to say sorry, that’s a type of invasion I wouldn’t want.”

Beyond concern for victims, Australian prison authorities are anxious about how smartphones – often smuggled in by visitors or corrupt guards – can be used to organise criminal activity beyond the prison walls, and orchestrate escape attempts. In September last year, Beau Wiles posted a selfie in his underpants to Facebook from a phone smuggled into the minimum-security facility in Goulburn, NSW. He tagged his girlfriend in the picture, adding, “Love u my my princess.” She replied, “Love u too my prince can’t wait to have my hand all ova that sexy body of urz.” The next morning Wiles climbed over a fence and was driven away.

What is becoming evident is that, no matter what security measures or firewalls prisons put up, the internet, like an invasive grass, pops up anyway. There is no single root that can be eradicated. With a smuggled phone, the prison cell undergoes a metaphysical transformation, expanding beyond the bars into that shared virtual world in which we now spend so much of our time. Gandhi once said that nobility of mind allowed him to transcend the isolation of physical imprisonment. In 2016, all you need is 4G.

“If you want internet in prison, brother, you pay the guards,” my friend in Holland tells me. “That’s the way it works worldwide. The guards don’t earn shit. You tell them, ‘Go to the corner of this and that street, my little brother is there and he’ll give you a phone and €500.’ Tomorrow you get the phone. Everybody’s corrupt.”

I ask him if he’s ever been caught with a phone. “Listen. This is my 12th phone. You get caught first time, you go two weeks’ isolation, second time three weeks’ isolation, fourth time three months no visit. I’ve been there done that. We are mouses, they are cats.”

It’s now 8.30 am, and I’ve been talking to this man in prison on the other side of the world on a free messaging app for more than half an hour. I thank him for his time and for taking a risk in speaking to me. He says it’s no sweat, that we can chat any time. “Before you go, I have one question for you,” he says. “How did you hear about 187gangstersz?” I tell him that I was researching a piece on internet in prisons, so as an experiment I searched #prisonlife on Instagram, and found a 187gangstersz clip.

“Ah yes, the hashtags,” he says. “Very important for business.”

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a New York–based writer and researcher.


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