Prison, associations demand access to the internet

“The release of my son, who has been incarcerated for eighteen years, is starting to take shape. Without internet, he cannot access organizations that could offer him job offers. Without a job, he will not be able to get out”: this testimony from a mother was transmitted to the International Observatory of Prisons (OIP), which made a public appeal on Wednesday, September 27, for access to the Internet to be allowed in prison.

This initiative is supported by about thirty associations, including the Catholic Relief Services, the Little Brothers of the Poor, and the Magistrates’ Union. “The ban on accessing the internet in prison hinders the fundamental rights of detained persons, particularly in terms of access to information, education, and social and professional integration,” these organizations believe.

An open letter to Élisabeth Borne

It is mainly for security reasons that access to the internet is prohibited in prison. “It is indeed necessary to prevent a prisoner, for example, from using an internet-connected device or a recording medium to exert pressure on a complainant or a victim, or to consult with a co-author in order to obstruct the proper conduct of the investigations they are the subject of,” the prison administration indicates. Without ignoring these constraints, last year, nearly 650 people (prison teachers, social workers, magistrates, lawyers, etc.) sent an open letter to Élisabeth Borne, the Prime Minister, to assert that the fight against the digital divide, “erected as a political priority,” should also concern detainees.

Today, the OIP is launching another attack by discussing the consequences of this lack of access to the Web. “This prevents them from following distance learning or carrying out administrative procedures, some of which can only be done online. This deprives detained persons of having a certain autonomy to carry out these sometimes essential procedures to prepare for their release, promote their reintegration, and fight against recidivism,”, emphasizes Prune Missoffe, advocacy manager at the OIP. With the internet, incarcerated individuals could also consult certain public websites or those of specialized associations that would allow them to better understand their rights. “They could finally inform themselves in a much wider way than through television or radio,” adds Prune Missoffe.

Access to the Web would facilitate maintaining ties with loved ones through email or video. “On this issue, there have already been advances with the installation of wall phones in the vast majority of cells in France,” indicates Wilfried Fonck, national secretary of Ufap-Unsa prison staff union. “The use of these phones is of course regulated. The detainee has a list of numbers authorized by the administration, generally those of their family, close friends, or their lawyer. All conversations are recorded and can be listened to based on the profile of the detainee,” adds the union representative. “The problem is that these calls are billed at a very high price to the detainee. With the internet, communication with loved ones would be easier, and they could see each other via video,” argues Prune Missoffe.

Many phones in detention

Although prohibited, this access to the Internet “already exists in fact” with the very high number of cell phones used in detention according to Wilfried Fonck. “They are delivered by drone and resold between detainees during outdoor exercise. It has become a real business,” he asserts, unconvinced by the idea of installing dedicated spaces where detainees could access computers in a supervised manner. “Additional resources would be needed to ensure this new mission because as it stands, it would be difficult to manage for personnel who are already overwhelmed,” emphasizes Wilfried Fonck.

For its part, the prison administration (AP) highlights certain local experiments such as those launched in 2021 at the Dijon remand center or at the Melun detention center. “The project consists of installing terminals in the cells of detainees and in an activity room per establishment,” indicates the AP, specifying that a total of 547 tablets have been installed, reaching approximately 1,500 detainees. After this experimental phase, these individuals will be able to consult information on vocational training in detention or the tools of Pôle emploi for job search outside. But for the OIP, the various ongoing experiments remain “very timid” and would ultimately only concern 3% of the over 74,000 incarcerated individuals in France.

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