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A tablet in every cell: Gansler's conversation starter

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler raised quite a few eyebrows recently when he suggested that inmates in the state's prisons be given tablet computers to help them further their educations, search for job opportunities online and keep in touch with their families on the outside. It's an interesting idea but one that obviously needs to be fleshed out further, if only to explain why prisoners should be getting the devices before they are even available to all the state's schoolchildren.

Mr. Gansler, who is expected to run for governor next year, argued that allowing inmates limited, supervised access to the Internet would save the state money on the upkeep of expensive prison libraries and classrooms. Even more importantly, he said, they could be valuable tools to help smooth prisoners' re-entry into society after their release, thus reducing recidivism rates. Currently more than 40 percent of inmates released from Maryland prisons are rearrested within three years.

There's no denying that new forms of technology are transforming the way large institutions operate, including prisons, and several companies are already marketing systems designed to give inmates selected access to music, games and other applications. That said, however, it's not clear whether such devices won't create more problems than they solve, or whether there aren't others steps the state should be taking to help prisoners successfully re-enter their communities before it starts handing out free tablets.

In fairness to Mr. Gansler, the tablet computers were just one of 10 ideas he proposed to deal with the difficulty of reintegrating recently released prison inmates back into society. The important thing here is not to get hung up on whether there should be an iPad in every cell but to focus attention on barriers to re-entry that can be formidable even for inmates with marketable skills who have been convicted of relatively minor offenses. A criminal conviction represents a black mark on their records that can limit the opportunities available to them for the rest of their lives.

Former inmates have the same basic needs as anyone else — safe, affordable housing, steady employment and access to health care. Yet Maryland allows landlords and employers to legally reject anyone with a criminal conviction in their background, even if the offense occurred decades ago. Former inmates are prohibited from placements in public housing and are ineligible for Section 8 housing vouchers. And any drug conviction, no matter how old, bars such people from receiving federal financial assistance for education such as Pell grants.

Though it didn't get as much attention as the tablets, Mr. Gansler did also suggest new laws that would help shield the criminal records of some former inmates who have demonstrated their rehabilitation. He proposed ideas for providing transitional housing to ex-offenders and procedures for creating re-entry plans for inmates as soon as they arrive in prison. But there are many other steps that Maryland should take.

For example, inmates in the prison system rarely are able to get health insurance after their release, even though they suffer higher rates of acute and chronic illnesses that often go untreated. And they're more likely to have mental health conditions or behavioral problems such as substance abuse that bring them to the attention of police. It's often just these kinds of issues that lead to people cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. The advent of the Affordable Care Act will help, but gaps will still exist — for example, inmates often leave prison without any kind of medical records.

Many released inmates return home to live with their families. But if the family is unstable, that can create its own set of problems. Sometimes what former inmates need is a change of environment, especially for those trying to get away from drug- and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Since that's often not possible, they end up falling back into the way of life that got them in trouble in the first place. Well over half the inmates released from prison every year return to Baltimore, where they are concentrated in neighborhoods that have the highest rates of drug abuse, unemployment and violent crime.

If the goal is to reintegrate former inmates into their communities, the state needs to invest more in housing opportunities for low-income families and job-training, mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. None of that will be cheap, but over the long run it is a lot less costly than maintaining more than 20,000 prisoners behind bars at a cost of more than $38,000 a year per prisoner.

Mr. Gansler has little to gain by making re-entry a focus of his campaign — after all, many people he's trying to help can't vote — and he's gotten plenty of grief over the tablet computer idea. But Maryland needs a comprehensive debate about how to remove the serious barriers to re-entry ex-prisoners face — in housing, employment and health care — and he deserves credit for starting it.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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