Prison Library Support Network

This is a list of reflections on the ways carceral technologies act as censors in the prison industrial complex. It is important to start by saying that it is necessarily incomplete: carceral spaces function through hierarchies, meaning officers at multiple levels can act as censors and block incarcerated people’s access based on spontaneous, unchecked decisions. With so many overlapping, inconsistent, and conflicting rules, it’s difficult to get a full picture of what people endure. 

Still, we created this as one small attempt at collating what we know about technology’s reach in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). It was written by members of the Prison Library Support Network based on our experiences helping people navigate carceral information systems and library resources from correctional facilities. In sharing this list, we offer our experiences to the conversation evolving around ways that carceral technologies are sites of a unique type of censorship and control.

1.) What are “Carceral Technologies”?

The Carceral Tech Resistance Network1 defines carceral technologies as:
technologies bound up in the control, coercion, capture, and exile of entire categories of people. these technologies—and the industries and institutions that sustain their use… [These systems are] the inheritance of a long history of racialized surveillance and developmentalism in the so-called united states, one that targets black, indigenous, immigrant, and poor communities.2

“Carceral Technologies” include video surveillance, face printing, DNA and biometric databases, acoustic gunshot detection, drones, electronic monitoring, Artificial Intelligence, and risk profiling algorithms. All of these develop and are developed by law enforcement and the prison industrial complex.

In carceral facilities, technologies are often touted as serving one or more of the following purposes: surveillance, communications, and e-learning3. Widely used products and systems—like tablets and video visitation—increasingly have the ability to integrate all three.

3. See more on this in Anne Kaun and Fredrik Stiernstedt, “Prison Tech: Imagining the Prison as Lagging Behind and as a Test Bed for Technology Advancement,” Communication, Culture & Critique, June 2021

Image Inspired by The Prison Policy Initiative,

2.) Troubles with Technology: Criminalization and Inaccessibility

A question we must ask: Would the design of prison tech products be considered high quality if they were intended for non-incarcerated people? A cursory look at the marketing material4 of prison tech tools makes clear that usability is lower on the list of priorities than a promise of security. Prison tech companies market their products as unbreakable and unhackable, invariably within the context that people in prison are innately and always criminal. Many tablets and kiosks are not fully accessible to those who struggle with digital literacy, and certainly not to those who are blind or have low vision. To understand the barriers of some tablet users, this example speaks volumes: a library user incarcerated in a New York State prison sent a reference letter via snail-mail asking for a list of the content offered on the tablets in his facility. He didn’t have the technology skills to effectively search for content during the 15-minute allotted kiosk time he was given to download new content. Unfortunately, the content is proprietary and inaccessible to the public. This example illustrates the ways tablets don’t necessarily make information easier and faster to access. Without a person to help this library user, the tablets instead are a barrier.

3.) Profiteering with Carceral Tech as Censorship

Private companies that collect and surveil user data profit off of incarceration. This influences how public entities like DOC(s) enforce censorship.  Tech companies’ customers are never incarcerated users; they are always prisons. Decisions to introduce new technology are almost always based on fixing a problem that the conditions of prison and jail create. When we evaluate the need and the usefulness of new tools, we must also consider the long-term impacts of bolstering both the bottom line of prison profiteers and the resulting “flexibility” of the prison industrial complex as a whole. The ability within the carceral system to pivot to new tools of control acts as a legitimizing influence within public opinion, sustaining the system and its profits while avoiding fundamental changes toward abolition. The advocacy organization Worth Rises has done incredible research to explore the complex network of moneymakers in the prison industrial complex.5

4.) Censoring Through Incentives

Prison tech incentives for  incarcerated users have a demonstrated pattern of being misaligned, exploitative and restrictive. In prison, “incentivized” learning can be particularly high-stakes. A common proposal in prisons goes something like this: if you participate in X, we’ll give you more access to Y. The “Y” could be food from the commissary, phone time, an extra visit day—all things that can help alleviate the inhumane conditions of prison. With digitized program content, incentivizing participation is made easier with tracking and surveillance. This is a problematic frame for reading and learning. A lower-stakes example on prison tablets is “unlocking” entertainment content by engaging with educational content—an infantilizing method to control how one spends their time. But that model paves the way for high-stakes incentivization like reading for “good time,” when reading is tracked and used as support for early release. It should go without saying that one’s freedom should not depend on their literacy level or their ability to access particular tech, regardless of whether or not they have a disability.

In an article6 promoting a tablet-based prison college program, a student’s perspective functions as an endorsement of tablet maker Securus Technologies. This point of view illustrates how incentivized programming plays a complex role in prison. The student disparages his peers for enrolling in class as a way of working toward their freedom. At the same time, however, he regards his own participation in the incentivization via tablet as a sign of earnest educational pursuit. The article reads: “Hopkins enrolled at Ashland University, where he attended in-person classes with others. However, many of his peers were taking the college courses to get ‘good time,’ which could lead to possible early release, he explained. The classes were loud and distracting. So, Hopkins made the switch to taking online courses using a tablet.” The student is prominently featured in Securus’s marketing materials, touted as a beneficiary of educational opportunity inside prison. But with only an associate’s degree and no continued financial support post-release, the student will face challenges with continuing his education and getting a well-paying job. In an inherently coercive environment, can we really say this is an example of someone being given more options than they'd have without these incentives?

5.) Moving Forward and Learning More

In closing, we want to address the gap between  carceral surveillance systems’ purported functionality and the capabilities of facilities to implement them. In the chaos of prison, it can feel like the threat these systems pose is theoretical, but that would be a mistake. In the perpetuation of the PIC, the promised benefits of new carceral technologies are just as important as how and what these technologies  actually deliver. New products expand and legitimize the systematic policing and criminalization of people already incarcerated––at this moment, it is especially true for products packaged as tools of reform.

The threat of carceral technologies is compounded by the way that public understanding is always catching up to the harm and violations experienced by people inside. As a result, extrajudicial consequences are a constant within the PIC and cannot be addressed by law, policy, oversight bodies, etc. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the rapid development of technologies in the PIC, but we’ve learned time and time again that we are the only ones who keep us safe.
One existing resource for navigating the current moment is a set of questions created by the Carceral Tech Resistance Network. You can use the following criteria as a guide for evaluating new projects, procurements, and programs:
  1. Does this reduce funding to the PIC?
  2. Does this challenge the notion that prisons increase safety?
  3. Does this reduce the tools, tactics, or technology prisons have at their disposal?
  4. Does this reduce the scale of the PIC?
By finding places where our goals as abolitionists are in conflict with the growth of carceral technologies, we can collectively learn when and how to intervene. For more resources, see the list that follows.


“It’s an impossible task but it’s one completely worthy of you.”
— Joy James, The Architects of Abolitionism

Carceral Technologies Reading & Resources

Key Resources:

carceral tech resistance network ( – a convening space for those organizing against the design, experimentation, and deployment of carceral technologies

Worth Rises’ The Curriculum ( – a free, self-guided, public course about the prison industry and the fight to build a world without it

Prison Policy Initiative ( – a widely loved resource for summaries and reports on policy trends in the PIC
Read, Listen, Watch:

“Community Defense: Sarah T. Hamid on Abolishing Carceral Technologies,” Logic, August 31, 2020,

Cooper Quintin and Beryl Lipton, “The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Exploring the Future of Incarceration Technology,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, September 7, 2021,

Prison Policy Initiative, “How to Spot the Hidden Costs in a ‘No-Cost’ Tablet Contract,” accessed October 2, 2021,

Kentrell Owens, Camille Cobb, and Lorrie Cranor, “‘You Gotta Watch What You Say’: Surveillance of Communication with Incarcerated People,” in Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (May 2021): 1–18.

Liv Graham, “Libraries, Prisons, and Abolition,”

“The Architects of Abolitionism: A Lecture and Conversation with Joy James,” The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, Brown University, May 6, 2019,