Digital literacy not a privilege – it’s a fundamental right

Previously published in AZ Capitol Times

Digital literacy might sound like a high-tech term, but in reality, it’s as basic as knowing how to navigate a smartphone or send an email. It’s about connecting in a world where almost everything happens online. This skill is a lifeline for those of us reentering society from prison. It’s not just about being tech-savvy, it’s about having the key to unlock doors to a new life. When this key is withheld from the incarcerated because it’s viewed as a privilege, it’s not just a missed step, it’s a serious violation of human rights. Looking at the more than 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the U.S. and the 700,000 released annually into a world they are ill-prepared for, I’m convinced that this topic not only deserves attention but demands it.

With joblessness the No. 1 predictor of recidivism, the recidivism rates in Arizona and nationally – 36.3% and 68%, respectively – speak volumes about a system that falls short in preparing its returning citizens for success. This failure becomes more evident when we consider the evolving job market. Analysis by the National Skills Coalition and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta indicates that 92% of jobs require digital skills. Even entry-level positions in many sectors now demand a basic understanding of digital tools. The requirement only escalates as one looks at growth-oriented jobs, which increasingly rely on more advanced digital competencies. When individuals lack these skills, they are locked out of significant job market segments. This exclusion extends beyond just employment. It affects their ability to engage in essential day-to-day activities, from managing finances to accessing health care services to connecting with loved ones.

Viewing digital literacy as a privilege undermines the reality of our digital age. It is a right that should be accessible to all, especially to those already facing numerous reintegration barriers. Equipping the incarcerated and recently released with these skills gives them a fighting chance at employment and acknowledges their right to participate in and contribute to our society fully.

My story mirrors this struggle. After 25 years in an Arizona prison, re-entering society was daunting. Released on house arrest, I couldn’t return to my pre-incarceration job in construction. Following my parole officer’s advice, I reached out to a renowned second-chance employer in Phoenix. Surprisingly, they offered me a position. My lack of basic digital skills – not knowing what “Control-Alt-Delete” meant – should have been a deal-breaker. In any other company, it would have been. Thankfully, the hiring manager, herself formerly incarcerated, chose to teach me from scratch, offering a vital bridge to a new start. However, such opportunities are scarce for the 699,999 others released annually.

A report from MIT Technology Review further highlights the dire need for Internet access in prisons as a tool for education and reintegration. This perspective is in line with the principles of digital inclusion, which advocate for equitable access to technology and digital literacy education. Such measures are key to opening doors to employment opportunities and enhancing societal engagement. To make this a reality, systematic change is necessary – a thorough revamp that acknowledges the indispensable role of digital skills in the modern process of reintegration.

As we observe Universal Human Rights Month, we must recognize that denying digital literacy and inclusion violates fundamental human rights. It’s a call to action for policymakers, educators, and community leaders to prioritize digital literacy as a cornerstone of rehabilitation and reintegration efforts.

By addressing this critical need, we have the power to transform lives, reduce recidivism, and build a more equitable society. This isn’t merely about fairness. It is a fundamental matter of human rights – a decisive step toward justice and equality for every individual.

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