For inmates released during COVID, online-everything makes coming home a digital headache

When my client missed his first support group Zoom call, I didn’t think much about it. When he missed his telemedicine appointment, I assumed that he was slow to get organized. He had every reason to need some time.

He had just been released from 30 years of incarceration after we won our motion for compassionate release in Washington, D.C. The judge ruled that because my client was over 60 years old, had served over 20 years in prison, had underlying health conditions that cause “acute vulnerability to severe medical complications or death as a result of COVID-19,” and did not pose a danger to society, he could go home for the first time since 1991.

The next day his daughter picked him up from the prison lobby, and we had a jubilant, celebratory Zoom call on her phone — the first time we saw each other’s faces. He was soon trapped in a court-ordered 2-week quarantine at his elderly sister’s home, while the rest of the world continued to navigate the pandemic. As the days passed once he got home, he did not return emails I sent to the address his daughter set up for him. He called me often saying that he had emailed, but nothing came. Then, he missed the Zoom support group meeting, and then another one. I got more worried.

Health and safety are first priorities

As part of our motion, we crafted a release plan to explain step by step where he would live, what job training he would do, how he would support himself or receive medical care and what support groups he would attend if he were released. We talked through those plans during our brief 30-minute legal calls in the fall of 2020. But then the first case of COVID in his prison was detected. Soon, the number of infected people skyrocketed, and in the prison went on quarantine status. That meant no more legal calls for a while.

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On my own and terrified for his health, I worked with his family to piece together the remaining issues and file the motion as quickly as possible. I tried to pre-empt any gap a judge could find in his release plan countless times, checked and rechecked the arguments, and filed. I hoped he would survive until a ruling.

About six weeks later, at a court hearing via Zoom which my client attended by phone, a judge granted our motion. We were overjoyed. The judge noted that the release plan was thorough. As a rookie lawyer in these proceedings, I cherished a compliment.

Exterior shot of a Texas prison. (Photo: Thomas B. Shea/for USA TODAY)

But in all that thinking and planning, both the judge and I had completely missed a glaring and fundamental piece. After 30 years in prison, my client had never seen a laptop or a smart phone. And in the pandemic, every single step of the plan was contingent on navigating the internet. This, unsurprisingly, would be the key to his success, but no one had prepared him for our digital society.

Thrown into the internet’s deep end

When he went to prison in 1991, a portable computer was a mammoth device. CERN “switched on” the internet that same year. My client came home in January to a radically different world from the one he left. Although he had sent emails while in prison through a restricted platform, that in no way prepared him to navigate an internet-ready laptop on his own, with endless access and no help. It became clear he struggled with everything we take for granted — wifi passwords, tabs, icons, cursors, touchpads and hyperlinks.

With offices closed throughout the city at the height of the pandemic, the internet was the gateway to everything — a social security card, a doctor’s appointment, a support group meeting. He was missing appointments because he didn’t know how to use the internet; the user interfaces were not intuitive for him.

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Under normal circumstances, a superhero public librarian could have helped him, but the libraries were closed, and time was passing. We got him a laptop, and my 9-year-old daughter and I went to visit him. The three of us spent a cold afternoon in March wearing our masks at an outdoor café for an inexpert session of Tech 101.

Together, we walked through many topics, from how to input the wifi info, to how to log in to his email and open his inbox. I emailed him Zoom links and ran around the corner. Eventually he clicked along until he could see my face on his screen. He practiced muting and unmuting, video on and video off. His confidence grew with each click.

Dignity of digital literacy

We didn’t cover everything that afternoon, but he got himself pointed in the right direction. More importantly, he was confident asking questions. Twenty-four hours after our afternoon, he triumphantly joined a Zoom meeting support group of other recently returned citizens. Now, he emails me each day, listing off the things he has learned to do — drafting an email, opening an app, reading on Facebook, watching how-to videos on YouTube when he is struggling.

Without COVID and D.C.’s emergency law, my client would still be behind bars, a senseless waste of taxpayer’s dollars. But COVID has also made re-entry exponentially harder for those without digital skills, as support services themselves moved nearly entirely online.

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As Americans begin to imagine a post-COVID reality, we should not forget the countless lessons the pandemic has taught us about our society’s many inequalities. Traditional concepts of literacy must encompass digital literacy to reflect the reality of our lives. No doubt re-entry service providers should be better funded to ensure digital literacy skills for all.

My client quickly faces the joy and challenge so many of us have confronted these past months. Last night he emailed to ask me what techniques my daughter recommends so that he does not get addicted to sitting in front of his laptop all day.

Maria Burnett is a pro bono attorney with the Washington, D.C., Compassionate Release Clearinghouse and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program. Follow her on Twitter: @_MariaBurnett.

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