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Digital pathways: Empowering justice-impacted individuals through broadband access

May 8, 2024 (Fairview, TX) - What happens when you combine a former criminology student with a current broadband enthusiast? Me! Well, more specifically this blog.

It should come as no surprise that I tuned into the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) latest webinar, “The Impact of High-Speed Internet Access on Incarcerated and Justice-Impacted Individuals,” on Thursday, April 25, eager to hear from state and local leaders who are creating digital and economic opportunities for incarcerated and recently released individuals.

The virtual event featured special guests Stacy Lyn Burnett from Ithaka, Jennifer Sanders from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) Ohio Central School System, Doug Casey from the Connecticut Commission for Education Technology, and Haley Shoaf from Unlocked Labs. These presenters highlighted the important role of broadband in correctional settings, as it provides an outlet for vocational training, economic opportunity, and general technology integration and literacy.

Not to spoil the webinar for those who haven’t watched it yet, but the evidence is clear: connecting incarcerated populations with digital opportunities provides a positive outlet for economic, educational, vocational, and social advancement.

Digital engagement provides incarcerated and justice-impacted individuals access to educational programs, a place to communicate with loved ones, and an avenue to develop technical skills that are necessary for re-entry.

So, before we go any further, let’s set the stage with important background information about State Digital Equity Plans.  

Digital equity background

Earlier this spring, it was announced that the NTIA had accepted Digital Equity Plans from all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. These plans assess barriers to digital access and connectivity needs, and provide a vision, informed by collaborative partnerships and holistic data collection, for achieving greater digital opportunity in each state. These plans function as roadmaps for providing digital opportunities to all residents.

According to NTIA statute, states must outline, in their Digital Equity Plans, how they will bring digital opportunities to the following groups, referred to as covered populations:

-              Low-income households

-              Aging populations

-              Incarcerated individuals

-              Veterans

-              People with disabilities

-              People with language barriers

-              Racial and ethnic minorities

-              Rural residents

Webinar highlights

As this blog offers my thoughts on the April 25 webinar hosted by the NTIA, which focused on incarcerated and justice-impacted individuals, it will focus specifically on that covered population. However, it’s worth noting that many of the themes discussed in the webinar can be applied to other covered populations who share similarities. Job training, digital upskilling, and economic advancement should know no bounds. 

I took pages and pages of notes during the webinar. Each speaker offered pearls of wisdom that I couldn’t pass up. I’ve even gone back and rewatched it, listening for information I may have missed the first time.

All that to say, there is much to be learned in the webinar, from best practices to engagement strategies to state and local resources. I encourage everyone to watch it. But in the meantime, here are some (abridged) highlights from a few of the speakers for your consideration:

·       95% of incarcerated people will be released. What happens inside has a direct impact on what happens on the outside — and that includes digital inclusion. (Burnett)

·       When we think about success metrics for digital equity and inclusion, we need to think about the work to connect inside and outside [the carceral setting]. We know students who are engaged with technology inside go home better prepared for prosocial civic engagement.  (Burnett)

·       Around 650,000 people are released from prison per year. That equates to about 10,000 people per week. In Ohio alone, we return over 18,000 people to the workforce. (Sanders)

·       There is an offline nature of incarceration, at least in our state currently. How do we emulate skilling up? (Casey)

Technology changes rapidly in society. For incarcerated populations, it changes all at once upon re-entry if there is no digital integration in the carceral setting to acclimate and provide for digital upskilling.

Further, there remains a cost barrier for many Americans who seek to get connected — not just those who are justice-impacted. The cost of monthly internet or the cost to obtain a digital device keeps many offline not just momentarily, but it prevents them from pursuing virtual work, online health care, and education programs (just to name a few).

Broadband is more than just physical infrastructure. It’s an outlet for opportunity that allows for growth, change, and progress.

In closing

Here at Connected Nation, we believe everyone belongs — in fact, it has become our tagline! We believe everyone deserves access to the internet and the multitude of resources available through a digital experience.

We believe in the power of online connection and the importance of safe online engagement. Through our community-based initiatives, digital literacy training workshops, policy programs, field validations, and everything in between, we are on a mission to bring the internet to everyone.

As evidenced by the testimony in this webinar, when we connect even one person to the internet and provide digital opportunity, we provide opportunity for the community at large. 

You can find out more about Connected Nation on our website:  

If you’d like to watch a recording of the April 25 webinar or view the slide deck, presentation materials can be found on the BroadbandUSA website

This blog was written by Sierra Sees, Policy and Engagement Manager for Connected Nation.

Sierra is responsible for initiating and facilitating community-based activities designed to empower, educate, and provide broadband/technology technical assistance to communities. Sierra supports various Connected Nation programs and activities that expand broadband access, adoption, and use.