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Some US prisons are banning books on coding

ben profile image Ben Halpern twitter logo github logo ・1 min read

πŸ‘‰ Prisons Are Banning Books That Teach Prisoners How to Code

Oregon prisons have banned dozens of books about technology and programming, like 'Microsoft Excel 2016 for Dummies,' citing security reasons. The state isn't alone.


β€œNot only do we have to think about classic prison escape and riot efforts like digging holes, jumping fences and starting fires, modernity requires that we also protect our prisons and the public against data system breaches and malware,” DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black said in an emailed statement. β€œIt is a Balancing Act we are actively trying to achieve.”

This is laughably ignorant.

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This is intentional. The for-profit prison system is designed to catch you and keep you.

Got a felony? What job can you hold now? Shit job. You are more likely to need to steal or deal just to survive. Of course you'll be back to prison.

3 strikes and you are a permanent resident. Now you are profit.

Even if you want to be better. The odds are so stacked against you.

We need prison reform. for-profit need to go.


As a European, the idea of for-profit prisons baffles me because of its pure evilness. Then add the idea that prisons should be punished centred instead of reform centred that the USA seems to fancy and you get things like banning books on coding.


The only country in the world. Rather, "the world"…


Denying people a simple right to learn is terrible. The long term repercussions from it will ripple throughout communities and generations.


Indeed laughable bs excuse. If a felon can learn programming, security, and hack your system while incarcerated I'd like to meet him/her.

It also means their network security sucks lol, you can't have terminals with full blown access in plain sight.

Do they not have stuff password protected like network switches lol or is their password "password"

I wonder if family members can still send them tech books.


If a felon can learn programming, security, and hack your system while incarcerated I'd like to meet him/her.

This is the greatest thing I have ever heard today. They should definitely put a bit more focus into improving their security rather than encroaching on a felon's ability to learn.


Definitely security is a huge deal nowadays in prisons, as they are becoming more automated. I just don't see how a prison can put themselves in a vulnerable situation because someone is trying to better themselves, and trying to become part of society when released. Coding alone it really isn't that malicious to a network tbh. (I got some experience in cisco switches)

As it stands prisons is just a big round circle, people get out to do the same things.


Also, what do you do with inmates who already know how to code, put them in solitary confinement?


Very good question. I'd like to know the answer too.


Family members can't send any books, just money to order books from a catalog they provide.


Not sure if I should laugh at this ignorance or feel bad for the people who put them in the decision making committee.

"Hey, they might hack our systems with spreadsheets and code from the prison cell".


Not agreeing with their decision but you can indeed run malicious vba code in a Microsoft excel spreadsheet.

But yeah you'll need a terminal and if they can access that then the prison has already failed at network security.


Don't get me wrong, but shouldn't they focus on increasing their security instead?

My understanding is that the whole point of prisons is to teach you how to be a part of society again. If you remove the very little amount of free education they can get while they're in there, doesn't it just defeat the purpose?
I'd like to think you make mistakes because of bad choices, lack of education, or hard circumstances.

Or maybe I'm wrong and prisons are about putting you somewhere you can't harm anyone, but then that's kind of sad...

Also, what do they do if a programmer gets incarcerated? He wouldn't need books!


American prisons abandoned the principles of rehabilitation a long time ago. They are punishment centers. There are vestigial remnants of an earlier philosophy centered around rehabilitation, but almost all decisions from legislature, prison leadership and staff are to remove, limit or subvert those efforts.


You could compare this to during slavery how slaves were deprived the rights to be educated, because the slave owners were afraid they would revolt. I don't like this. It's a white vs black, rich vs poor, conservative or socialist, Christian or slave...


Yeah, agreeing with the others here. This isn't "Oh we just don't understand computers". This is "If we allow the inmates to educate themselves with useful skills, they might actually make a life for themselves outside of prison!"


I'm going to get flamed for this. I know I will get hated. But in the interest of fairness, I'm going to say it anyway.

The situation is more complicated than it seems.

While I was in seminary studying to be a Catholic priest (I left without being ordained), I had a field work assignment in Maryland's maximum security prison in Hagerstown. The men in there were not in there for drug related crimes except maybe for trafficking on an large scale. Most were in there for pretty shocking crimes. You don't get a triple life sentence for pot. Many had barely avoided the death sentence. Don't get me wrong.

I mostly liked the inmates I worked with. They were mostly OK for purposes of my weekly interaction. They liked the activities we provided as well as the chance to get out of their cells. Some were easy conversationalists. Mostly they shared my dark sense of humor.

Maryland leads the US in reducing prison population. It dropped by almost 10% in 2017.

I may be mistaken, but I don't think Maryland has for-profit prisons. Only about 1/2 the states do. Another thing often misunderstood is that while there are serious problems in our justice system and for-profit prisons are obviously problematic, only a small percentage of inmates actually live in for-profit prisons. I think it's something like 5% nationwide.

Now even though I liked a lot of the inmates that I worked with and they treated me very respectfully as a religious worker and a source of 'time out' of their cells, they could be very devious. They frequently asked me to make phone calls or carry out letters and packages for them. I couldn't do any of these things without committing a felony and, given the security measures, certainly getting caught. These attempts were silly and came from childish minds. But many of the prisoners were not so dumb. Additionally, fights, riots, and escape attempts happened. I never witnessed an act of violence during my six months there, but on a few occasions, when we arrived to work, we were turned back because the prison was on lockdown. Because of the nature of the criminals, security was a paramount concern and security flaws absolutely put the guards' lives at risk.

This was in 2006, but their computer classes did not have internet access. I don't know whether they do now. While I think it would be sad for a prisoner to be blocked from an avenue of learning, I can understand a state deciding it didn't have the resources to get into a cybersecurity arms race with a few thousand very devious and very bored guys with tons of time on their hands, some of whom are much more intelligent than might be supposed.

It may be an incorrect policy, but if Maryland's department of corrections should adopt it, I think it would be safe to say it was not for some nefarious reasons.

I think generally that when dealing with situations that are very foreign to our own experience, the best policy is to hear folks out rather than make assumptions.


...because security == security. Not.

This is a behavioral response (and selling point) for fearmongering. People who fear technology want to keep the people they fear from having skills which they (ignorantly) perceive will be a theat to themselves and others. Now if you wanted to ban use of aws? Ok. I might get that could be an issue


I am kind of puzzled at the probabilities of both good and bad side of this. And I choose not to take any concrete side either way. We live in a world where some sort of criminals are ignored due to their gender, color and position whereas some get prison even for meeting their kids. I can't imagine people even bother about learning and coding in such scenario.


Lets not teach programming at schools also since it introduces kids to computers, internet and ways how to hack the world around them. Lets not do that and dumb down just because we have a system and the system doesnt like our kids to be smart.

Corporate Boss: Hey how can we solve this issue we have with those peasants trying to hack us?
Thinker: We can improve our network security boss. We can integrate an SIEM, IDS, better firewalls, teach our people to detect spammy emails ...
Corporate Boss: Ahh, that seems like a lot of work. After all, i dont want my workers to be smarter and to know more then me. So what if, we can cut them from the internet?
Thinker: But boss, it is their right to learn and improve, so ...
Corporate Boss: Their right, who said they had rights.

Yeah thats where we are.


This is an extremely cruel situation. Everyone has the right to learn anything they want.
"Oregon prisons have banned dozens of books about technology and programming, like 'Microsoft Excel 2016 for Dummies,' citing security reasons. The state isn't alone."
If your staff is so dumb to open spreadsheet that may contain macros, you already failed at the so called "security".


This is such a sad news. If you believe in second chance, and welcome folks who are currently serving time to re-enter workforce, I encourage you to donate to Un-loop.

Had an opportunity to invite them to speak at CascadiaJS last year. Their mission and stories really moved me. I hope more organizations were doing things like this.


I don't necessarily disagree with this. There are ways to use apps like Excel maliciously. That said, I don't think those tools should be banned outright.

Someone else mentioned that the US prison system doesn't focus on rehabilitation. And I agree that's a bad thing. What does Europe do differently that might work in the US?


When did prisons stop "reforming" and start putting escape room scenarios in the mix? Pathetic how nobody sees the system wedging these people into impossible circumstances but can't figure out why there is so many repeat offenders? (This statement excludes sex offenders and other known POS)


But what will they do with incoming prisoners who already know programming?


This seems like a violation of their rights. What about prisoners who already know Microsoft Excel?


That's a load of crap.

Prisoners won't hack into your system by learning to code. They'll hack into your system because your system's security sucks.


This is laughably ignorant.

Already summarized in this sentence Ben.

I'm speachless after reading this.


High demand for them in the field of former journalism.


I legit stole bitcoin once using Excel Macros. It ain't no joke homie.


youre lucky youre not in the UK where we can put you IN prison for reading one (or is it for watching TV i forget)


So what do you do with rapists and murderers?


Think of it that way:

When you find an issue in your code, do you look for the cause and try to remove it so that the same issue does not appear again or do you try to hide is away by adding some more code?

In the prison context, the first solution is to address issues before they become issues: have thorough mental health policies, address delinquency through economic policies, etc. Have a justice system and a policing system that priviledge prevention rather than punishment by changing incentives, etc. The possibilities are pretty much endless when you consider the dire state of the current thinking on prisons.

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Rape them and murder them? Just kidding. Back on topic though I do agree that US prisons only seem to want to punish felons maliciously. Social policy really sucks in most of the states imho.

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Ben Halpern profile image
A Canadian software developer who thinks he’s funny. He/Him.