Access to the internet: a fundamental human right?

Ian Clark argues that improved access to ICT could help those in prison to find employment and re-integrate in society.

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Overcoming the divide between the richest and the poorest in society has always been a significant challenge.

The wealthiest in society have always been in a position to afford the services required to improve their quality of life. In the UK in the twentieth century, particularly post-1945, there were renewed efforts to address this disparity through the introduction of the National Health Service, a functioning welfare system and free secondary education for all pupils.

Between 1910-1979, the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest in the UK dropped significantly.  Since then, the trend has been in the opposite direction.  Technological advances provide an opportunity to close this gap once more.

However, as yet, this potential has yet to be realised, not least due to the expense of the technology and the skills required to exploit it. Indeed, whilst the impact of easier access by the public to relevant information has been felt to a degree, the continued existence of a digital divide hampers progress towards the more equitable society the technology can help to deliver.

At present, there are around 7 million people in the UK who have never accessed the internet and the number without access is obviously higher.  Closing this divide can improve life chances and help to shrink the gap between the richest and the poorest, although obviously it won’t eliminate the gap on its own.

As government services have shifted online, and the economic benefits of getting everyone online are talked up, one group in society is often excluded when it comes to identifying and supporting the so-called ‘information poor’ – prisoners.

Towards the end of last year, the Prison Reform Trust and Prisoners’ Education Trust released a report on computer and internet access in prisons. Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation explores the use of ICT in prisons and its potential impact on rehabilitation. The report argues that drastic change is needed and access to ICT should be reconsidered.

Now, some might argue that if you are in prison you lose your liberty and therefore any right to access services such as the internet. However many prisoners are only removed from society on a temporary basis and will have to be reintegrated at some point.  We need to consider their re-integration in society and provide the necessary support to help ensure that they do not re-offend.

Nearly half of released prisoners (47%) are reconvicted within a year of their release. Furthermore, in 2011-12, “just 27% of prisoners entered employment on release from prison”. The challenge is to reduce the re-offending rate and ensure that prisoners are not pushed to the edges of society once they have finished serving their sentence.

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Posted 13 March 2015