Women transitioning from incarceration may face tech challenges

LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) – A University of Kansas study has identified the technological challenges women

LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) – A University of Kansas study has identified the technological challenges women face when transitioning from incarceration.

The University of Kansas says scholars have written a study about the return to a digital world for women leaving prison or jail, their technology usage, privacy management and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their access to technology. It said the research was part of creating technology classes to help the population successfully rejoin society.

KU said Hyunjin Seo is an associate professor of journalism and mass communications and is the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation grant to provide evidence-based technology education to women transitioning from incarceration. It said through interviews they learned more about the challenges women face in returning to an increasingly digital world.

Specifically, the University said they found the women often have inadequate access to the internet, rely on cellphones for completing online tasks and often know little about protecting their privacy or have potentially dangerous attitudes about online safety. It said COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges.

KU said coauthors include Hannah Britton, professor of political science and of women, gender & sexuality studies; Megha Ramaswamy, associate professor of preventive medicine & public health; doctoral students Darcey Altschwager, Matt Blomberg and Shola Aromona; and senior researchers Bernard Schuster, Marilyn Ault and Joi Wickliffe, all of KU.

According to KU, the results have also served as a foundation for an evidence-based technology class for women transitioning from incarceration. It said Seo had previously designed a local educational program for that population and was encouraged by participants that found successful employment.

“I’d been thinking about how to scale up that project, so we submitted a research proposal to the National Science Foundation to work with more women in Missouri and Kansas,” Seo said. “Happily, this proposal was funded. For all of our projects like this, we first conduct rigorous research to develop an evidence-based program.”

KU said the article presents findings on the challenges and knowledge women transitioning from incarceration had, both before and during the pandemic. It said the key to the findings was access to the internet. It said many women reported relying on cellphones and often also used places like public libraries, coffee shops or fast-food restaurants for WiFi. It said the pandemic further complicated this.

“There is increasing awareness of a digital divide and its effects, especially during a pandemic. A significant proportion of people simply do not have adequate access to computers or internet at home. Public places where they generally use public-access computers or Wi-Fi are closed due to COVID-19,” Seo said. “Women transitioning from incarceration have distinct challenges as well. While incarcerated, they are separated from technology and have to catch up when released.”

According to the school, less than half of the respondents reported having a laptop or computer. It said some reported borrowing laptops or tablets provided by schools when students are not using them. It said those with cellphones with internet access often had data plans with severely limited amounts of time they could spend online.

KU said isolation from technology when incarcerated was often exacerbated when participants were learning about new technologies when released.

“A significant percentage of women who were incarcerated had histories of sexual harassment or abuse, which can lead to mental health challenges, increased frustration, anger management and other issues when trying to learn about new technology,” Seo said.

According to KU, the research participants indicated they often did not know how to protect their privacy or information online. It said this manifested in several ways, including many who choose not to join social media or going online very little for fear of losing information. It said several, especially those recently released, also reported feelings of still being watched, resulting in a reluctance to be active online. It said others reported not wanting to be online to avoid being found by abusive partners or exes or a reluctance to make friends on social media for that reason.

KU said a lack of knowledge about online security also revealed itself. It said respondents often reported having bad credit, lack of employment or little money as reasons to not be fearful of having information exposed online. It said this attitude is dangerous and can lead to reckless behavior or leave people vulnerable to malicious actors online.

According to KU, the findings show a digital divide and certain populations are often left out in terms of digital access and knowledge. It said the project aims to support over 100 women in reentry to complete education during the three year project period. It said participants will learn about technology, security and privacy and will get certificates of completion they can list on their resumes.

“We’re trying to help this population of women enhance their technological skills that they can use in securing employment in an environment where their skills are increasingly valued,” Seo said. “We also know the pandemic has forced the cancellation of many classes and made access more difficult. Google Fiber has provided support for purchasing refurbished computers and mobile hotspots for the project. There have been efforts made to address the digital divide, but there simply have not been sufficient efforts made on behalf of this particular group.”

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