Incarceration – The Extreme End of Social Media (A Worldwide Challenge)

Recently, I wrote a piece on Government 2.0 – on topic of Incarceration worldwide. The article threw some strong reactions and interesting discussion on how social web can and cannot intersect the high level functioning of Governments right up to building a dutiful performing ensemble of citizens at a micro level. Here is the edited transcript of those views, which I believe are much more intensely relevant for Asian/Indian scenario. To start off, dear Pi readers please note that in the world, among those countries who declared their incarceration data, US ranks the number one with at least 756 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants (approximately 2.25 million people behind bars) while India ranks the last with as few as only 22 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants. Source

In fact I landed over the subject of incarceration and rather stifled myself into trouble of losing two consecutive nights in sleeplessness. For here we are on internet selling Social Media, Open Governance, Government 2.0 to a generation with true social consciousness, and thinking how awesome the generation would be tomorrow when our kids could possibly talk to the premiers of countries (like we talk to Shashi Tharoor over Twitter), and there in some dark cellar is a man, disconnected even upto 23 hours everyday round the year without a contact to anything living. And the number is not few thousands or even few hundred thousands. There are an estimated 9.5 million people put under incarceration under different international or national laws of various off-line silos that we call countries.

That’s like putting population size of entire Haiti behind bars!

While, America ranks number one in rate of incarceration but in absolute terms India too due to sheer size of its population houses a very large number of inmates that are subject of criminal infrastructure. Kasab is just one of them. Also note that the figure of 9.5 million inmates does not count the number of humans serving terms in countries which are not open about sharing incarceration data. For example, China.

The Subject

While it might be true that there were substantial reasons for the incriminated to be behind bars, but it is hard to assume that more often than not such “pariahs” were not a product of policy force-fitting or misuse of power by those who are incumbent. There is a saying, society frames the crime and the criminal commits it. And with figures like 9.5 million, is there any estimate on how many innocents are behind bars at this point of time? In a discussion at a party with my friends, it almost came out that it’s because of the example set by such an incarcerated population does the remaining 6 billion outside function with integrity. Or almost with integrity. But an unanswered question was “do we really refer to the number of prisons, or number of inmates” before signing checks on behalf of our organization or carrying out the day to day activities? Isn’t this model of incarceration an old school of thought.

Are we close to an Answer?

Prisons are primarily meant to isolate dangerous individuals who can either potentially harm the society in future or have already done harm and serving a term to avoid further damage. Of course unless the human was awarded a death penalty, the punishment normally assigned to a subject is that of imprisonment. So is it okay to keep them inside for sake of safety and yet open an internet based social connection so that they can keep up with the world? For example allow a twitter connection to those who want to use the channel to communicate with the world outside. While it is not tough to imagine the ruckus that this  idea might bring about in the short term, but there seem significant reasons to believe that in the long term giving prisoners a chance to interact with the world through new forms of social media would lead mankind to a general betterment.

Arguments against this can be in plenty, but we may note that all communication from ordinary citizens are (can be) easily monitored over the internet already! If Government 2.0 is about evolutionary, and when even military is opening up to social media then why not the prisoners? Why continue to deny such a significant percentage of population from a threshold of neat social media where mental stresses could be lowered by simply passing time reading views and contrariwise or surfing the web. Why completely kill a chance of recovery from depressions for some who were originally not made of a criminal mind?

Evolution of Law

Another angle that one must not overlook is the fact that laws of the land, legal frameworks and constituents of punishments are the slowest of systems to evolve over centuries. Purely because of the nature of such an infrastructure i.e the fine print is meant to be hard-lined-strict-compliance text which cannot be interpreted in more than one way. Nobody is allowed to amend such a text without going through a heavy complex process of deliberation by experts – by a group or committee giving recommendations – which one’d realize is not as quick an evolutionary process as that of one simple geek sitting on a computer designing the next generation car that can cross the legal speed limits and outrun the police. Things like technology, life style, fashion and social intelligence evolves much faster with every passing generation. Then why do we have to subject a human of rapidly evolving modern social era (alleged to be a criminal) to a primitive theory of torture & incrimination by subjecting him to social denial.

The Subtle Examples of True Lies

In a world that is fraught with imbalances it is almost certain that traditional media has too much power today, leaving a possibility to cook up stories in name of facts and write sensationalist stuff that sells & entertains at the cost of a subject. A phenomenon requiring an urgent fix. A really cool example at hand is that of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, who apparently just like many others in past have been a victim of traditional media. In some of his tweets, Dr. Shashi during the crash boom bang says:

Today’s (Indian) Express then describes a conversation between me & Defence Minister Antony that never took place. Why report when u can just invent?

So many lies in our media. Yesterdy IndianExpress invented a protocol problem over me at the Padma Awards – but I never attended the Padmas!

“@sonamohapatra sorry you feel that way. I have done no wrong, &have asked for an inquiry to prove it. Am proud of my life’s work &record.”

“Sorry for long silence,been overwhelmed. Here’s what I would have said in Parliament had the Opposition let me speak: http://bit.ly/bkcf5z

A response by a proud mother Sunanda Pushkar on how she was pushed over the cliff was covered by TehelkaSunanda Pushkar, the woman in the tableau, was not hit by some unheeding truck. She was hit by the media. As Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, the doctor parents of the slain Aarushi, know only too well, this is not the first time it’s happened. In its feeding frenzy for 24 /7 excitement, the media has developed a curious way of turning fathers into murderers; women into vamps.”

The question: When the voice of powerful individuals like Dr. Shashi Tharoor gets easily lost in the noise of news-sellers (who were easily seduced by business interests) think about those 9.5 million guys behind bars who never seemed to have a spark enough to let their voices be heard outside. And are subjected to a torture of lifelessness within four walls. Doesn’t that sound maddening?

The Communication Fix.

Hmmm. Interestingly there is an immediate and inexpensive fix. The social web. Had it not been for twitter, you & I would not have come to know what Dr. Shashi Tharoor is about and is going through. He had the Twitter power in his hands and communicated well. As we argued in our article on Government 2.0 about power & communication, letting technology handle the communication part not only helps in bringing out transparency but also it removes the imbalance of power at the hands of intermediaries like I do not want to say who:-). Would you disagree.

Lastly, is it out of place to raise a question to the world: Does treatment to inmates can really be considered for a review in the light of new media? If safety is a concern, allowing inmates to talk to the world remotely by simply using an internet connection, verified account and perhaps monitoring will help us weed out a need for rigorous imprisonment in the long run. Besides resorting to imprisonment – an extreme end of social media is not watertight anyway. The rising rate of crime worldwide apparently indicates that, fear is no way to stop a criminal.

Is there another way to ensure integrity from a common man. Any answers?

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