One Laptop Per Incarcerated Prisoner


One Laptop Per Child designed its amazing XO laptop for children in the developing world. There, kids who might never know a school classroom can still gain an education through a cheap, durable, technological conduit to learning learning - a Constructionist methodology in a bright green computer.

olpc theft
You stealing that XO?

But it's not only children that need an education. There is a whole other constituency that needs access to education and the skills that XO exposure can bring: prisoners. Erwin James, a former life sentence prisoner in the UK, and a Guardian columnist, says:

With ever increasing numbers of people in prison living with literacy and general educational deficiencies and overcrowding placing unprecedented demand on the ever limited resources of the prison system, never has there been a better time to provide prisoners with computers, in their cells, and to ensure fairness and equality, why not meet the cost?

It might not be popular with "the public" to begin with, but we could do worse than start a new prison initiative - the OLPP - One Laptop Per Prisoner. It would be much more constructive use of taxpayers money and prisoners' time than in-cell television and could change the direction of future penal philosophy.

I completely agree with Erwin. Incarceration without retraining is just inviting released convicts to re-offend - they often have no other marketable skill or knowledge than the crime they were jailed for.

With an XO laptop, each prisoner could be engaged in processes that can advance their ability to re-assimilate into society, from the technical skills of the basic technology to the social aspects learned through mesh networking. Add in learning activities around education, and everything from basic literacy and math to life skills and employment opportunities improve.

And for better or worse, the Washington Post reports that 2.2 million were in prison or jail in 2005, a decent target market for OLPC's sales efforts.

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Do you know how many shanks a prisoner could make by melting the plastic that goes into producing the XO's extra-thick case? My guess is a lot.

Some prisons that allow prisoners to have TVs require that the case be made of clear plastic so that the prisoners cannot hide anything inside the TVs. It would be neat if they made the XO out of clear plastic so everyone can see the parts inside.

Something that has struck me from this and many other posts is that the XO was designed for one particular audience, but it turns out it could be very valuable for many others.

This is joke, right?

perhaps they could learn how to make a bomb.

This would have to be planned _very_ carefully, but I see no reason why the XOs shouldn't be used for whatever population can benefit. Still, I think what I've learned from OLPC is how much more successful a project is when designed wth a population in mind, not taking an existing project and trying to translate it from the top down.

In a lot of these uses we are talking about on here, you could subsitute "XO" for "low cost laptop" and get the same results. What is truly revolutionary about the XO -- the mesh and built in sharing -- might not do so well in prisons, where sharing is perhaps not what we want to encourage all of the time. There's a huge potential for gangs, threats, covert communications, stalking, etc. The XO might not be the best choice unless there was some way to have adminstrative control over the mesh -- and the XO is designed not to be controllable like that.

Still, I've worked in corrections (juvenille) it's the worst possible environment I can think of for learning, exploring, or even thinking. Survival is the goal. Anything we can do to imporve a prisoner's chance of getting decent education is a step toward reducing crime.

A OLPP project would have to be really well thought out, with attention paid to every bit of the hardware, software, and implimentation -- the same way the OLPC project was thought out for its market.

"In a lot of these uses we are talking about on here, you could subsitute "XO" for "low cost laptop" and get the same results."
I visited someone in the hospital (which had free wifi) and thought "If you could rent an XO, the way you rent phones and tvs, that would be cool" but you post makes me have to rethink that as "if you could rent a low-cost, reasonally rugged, practically disposable internet device, that would be cool." I'm pretty sure prisoners won't be getting mesh and webcams anytime soon, but a different hardware/software implementation is probably a good thing.

I second the concerns about controlling or eliminating the mesh connectivity in a prison environment, to prevent covert communications.

Strict control over internet access, including the possibility of limiting it or eliminating it altogether, might be an option, too.

I can absolutely see the potential of using computers as educational tools for inmates who want to learn and have viable skills when they get out. And if there is a safe way to do this, I'm all for it. When I say "safe", what I'm getting at is that the people who actually do want an education should be able to get one, but the people who want to abuse the computers for covert communications, to stalk or harass witnesses, etc, should be unable to do so. If some motivated minds decide to design a project that fits those criteria, that's great. Let them do it.

But unless the project is designed to prevent abuse of the system, I think that the proponents of the (currently hypothetical) OLPP project need to go back to the drawing board.

Howabout bringing back the chaing gang?

They won't be just left doing nothing. And it will help our economy.

"They won't be just left doing nothing. And it will help our economy."

Personally, I abhor slave labour in any form. I would boycot any product that might have benefitted from it.

I think the OLPP could be used in civilized countries, where prisons are not run by gangs and prisoners are not able to torture other prisoners. I admit, that would reduce the market considerably.

But I think like Lesley that it would be better to design a new appliance and software specifically for this use. However, the technology of the OLPC would lend itself to that redesign beautifully.


Wayan, you're losing it! The XO may be a hammer,
but not every social problem is a nail.

If the problem is covert communications then the solution is not eliminating the mesh but rather eliminating the secrecy.

If every message is public and is recorded and it's origin logged then this should control this problem.

OLPP makes so much sense. For most criminals (especially those that get caught) crime doesn't pay that well (see the relevant chapter in Freakonomics). Anything that makes prisoners more employable is a good thing and education is top of that list. It even makes sense economically - the cost per annum of one prisoner is a lot higher than that for one primary school student so the cost of the OLPP is a smaller part of the total budget.

"If every message is public and is recorded and it's origin logged then this should control this problem."

A centralized WiFi access point would be a better solution than a mesh if you want to eavesdrop.


This is a wonderful idea... implementation would have to be in a classroom setting though (which prisons have). Their laptop-cases would have to be clear like the first poster suggested for them to be approved by at least California State requirements.

Currently the University of California Berkeley has an outstanding educational program at San Quentin State Prison.

My father is an inmate at San Quentin and I can tell you right now, the few that have posted "chain gangs", "monitor them", "you're crazy" etc, have NO idea what prison is like or how it works.

The young guys are truly a violent fearful problem, and survival is their main goal. The older they get though, they concentrate more on making a difference and getting on with their lives. An OLPP project (in an education setting) could be a great tool to help the current education programs and would greatly reduce the "revolving door" that we see so much currently. Teach them, equip them, make a change in the society!

Please watch this 6 minute YouTube video for more information on this topic and hear from the prisoners themselves as well as the educators.
You might learn something you didn't know!

In 2004 I went offline for most of the year to talk with people NOT using the Internet. One group I wanted to target was prisoners. Research showed that any kind of electronic communications aside from outrageous charges for use of pay phones (MCI had a very sweet contract with the state of California), was almost non-existent. There have been some cases of inmates doing data entry (better than some other jobs the prisons have such as getting paid to supply workers in hothouses to tend tomatoes) and the New York Times had an article about some identity theft associated with that. I also heard about a very early case in Wisconsin where the Plato system was used between a university project and prisoners. That may have been an early node on the Internet or a UUCP connection.

Over the past few years I have not kept up with changes. There may be cases where computers are used for literacy, GED, etc, but knowing the attitude of the administrations, I doubt it.

Other countries? Can't say, but there is a lot of smuggling of mobile phones in Brazil's prisons. Where the sun don't shine.

@ Anonymous
Wayan, you're losing it! The XO may be a hammer,
but not every social problem is a nail

HAHAHAHAHA! That's so true, but what's so awesome about the XO is that it's a hammer built totally for a particular nail -- not the same damn hammer. I think all of this excitment is people saying " group of prisoners/special ed kids/hospital patients/ etc. deserves to have a hammer built for them as well."

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