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New Jersey Inmate Fights For More Modern Tech in Prisons

As a paralegal, LaShawn Fitch has learned weighty stuff, everything from the difference between de facto, de jure, and de novo to the proper way to file things in criminal, civil, administrative, and federal courts. One of the biggest challenges he’s faced has been how to find an affordable, long-lasting word processor and keep floppy discs from corrupting and wiping out all his work, News From the States reports. Fitch has been incarcerated since 2014 at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, where laptops, flash drives, and other modern digital conveniences are banned as security risks. He’s on a crusade to get the state Department of Corrections to lift that ban. He filed a grievance with the system last fall seeking broader technology access for imprisoned people. After several terse responses from corrections officials saying they were researching the issue, Fitch escalated his case in December to state Superior Court, where he hopes a judge will intervene. “I’m only 32, so I didn’t know what a word processor was till I got here,” Fitch told the New Jersey Monitor. “They’re obsolete. It’s time to change.”

Such a fight might seem surprising, considering how tightly access to digital tools is restricted behind bars. Many people in prisons rely on pen and paper to fight their cases and to communicate with the outside, with their only technological access an occasional turn on the few internet-free computers in prison libraries.

As technology has evolved, so has access to it behind bars. In 2015, New Jersey prison officials made tablet computers available for incarcerated people to send email and videograms, download digital books, games, and music, and transfer money through a system called JPay. These concessions have recognized that incarceration’s digital divide leaves many people who leave prison struggling to reintegrate and that digital literacy can reduce recidivism. Battles like Fitch’s have helped remove barriers to other modern mundanities, like cell phone calls. Incarcerated people in New Jersey had long been barred from calling cell phone numbers — because of “security concerns” — until Edward Grimes, who was incarcerated at the Trenton prison, took the Department of Corrections to court and won that right in 2017. Still, the digital tools available to people serving time are in short supply and in huge demand. The Trenton prison has 49 JPay kiosks for the 1,300 people incarcerated there.


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