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Internet for All Should Include Formerly Incarcerated

May 26, 2022 by Madeline Hughes
Internet for All Should Include Formerly Incarcerated
(Photo by Compare Fire via UnSplash)

WASHINGTON — With billions of dollars flowing from the federal government into every state and community to provide internet for all, government officials have been instructed: Leave no one behind.

That includes formerly incarcerated people who are reintegrating into society.

This is happening as the administration is tasked with giving out $2.75 billion for programs that help people access the internet and learn how to use it, which is part of the Internet for All program.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration brought together business and civic leaders working toward expanding digital equity and computer skills to formerly incarcerated people on Wednesday. 

Jonathan Alvarez, co-founder and executive director of 914 United Inc. recently started digital literacy classes through his New York-based nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society.

“The digital divide doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he explained to those gathered at the roundtable “Highlighting Digital Equity Act Investments in Justice Impacted Americans.”

As a formerly incarcerated person who spent 13 years in state prison and got out when he was 30, Alvarez explained a lack of basic necessities like food, housing and shelter make it difficult for people to take advantage of programs like his that help them rejoin society. 

“We can’t provide a service if they aren’t housed properly,” he said.

His program worked with STEM Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at opening up STEM educational opportunities for underserved populations, which worked really well, he said.

“STEM Alliance was very flexible and able to adapt to our program needs,” he said, explaining that they’ve had three different classes with a mix of different times. One was too time consuming and another hybrid model didn’t quite work, he said. But eventually, they found a flexible program that worked for his clients.

Flexibility was key because formerly incarcerated people have lots of other requirements like parole meetings and work schedules, Alvarez said.

Businesses are also getting involved and making sure their employees, especially those who were incarcerated, get proper training for devices that might be “intimidating” to some, said Stephanie Quillen, director, Talent Innovation, Effectiveness & Development at Tyson Foods.

This is especially important as the company rolls out an education program that allows employees to get online master’s and bachelor’s degrees, as well as GEDs and other technical certifications, Quillen said.

The company is proud of its diverse workforce that “makes an effort to recruit formerly incarcerated people,” Quillen said. The food manufacturing company also employs people who speak more than 60 different languages, so digital equity barriers are prominent, she said.

She explained the company has implemented a “single sign-on,” which means the same username and password across the websites and platforms employees need access to either for their work or the benefits to which they are entitled. They are also making tablets available to employees, she said. 

“We want to make it as simple as possible, we want them to be able to raise their hand and ask to take advantage of the education benefit,” Quillen said.

Hearing these issues to access from people working to expand digital equity, Andrew Berke and Angela Thi Bennett, who both work for NTIA, encouraged people to reach out to their state’s broadband offices currently working on plans to get a slice of the broadband infrastructure dollars.

“We need trusted experts and lived experience at the table,” Bennett, the digital equity director, said.

Madeline can be reached at maddie@thewellnews.com or on Twitter @ByMaddieHughes

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