Community reboot: Getting former prisoners safely back online

Ian A. Elliott

For a number of years now I have been involved in a series of projects that have sought to answer a modern reentry conundrum: given the ubiquity and the professed positive effects of internet access, how can we safely incorporate ‘online reentry’ into parole and probation community practice, both generally and for those where internet access was a part of their crimes? How can we encourage and support internet use while at the same time impede potential criminal opportunities that such access may afford?

Law enforcement agencies are required to balance (a) public protection, community safety, and accountability for victims and (b) support to promote successful reentry into the community for clients. Along with mandated registration, notification and residence restrictions, those who were incarcerated for sex offenses are often placed under further legal conditions, which can include limiting or revoking their access to the internet (and other communications technologies). In the U.S., however, recent legal scrutiny has indicated that limitations on internet access for registered sex offenders may be overbroad and unconstitutional and/or constitutionally vague. The possibility now exists that such all-inclusive restrictions may be limited or abolished.

Consequently, an approach to the supervision of computer-use is needed in which registered sex offenders can be provided with full access to communications technologies, but in a way that provides adequate monitoring. Back in the U.K., I was involved in two demonstration projects that evaluated the use of offender management software (OMS), one with Surrey Police and another with the Hampshire Constabulary, as a strategy to achieve that goal. That approach has now been implemented in a number of regional police forces across the U.K.

Witnessing its apparent success back home, my boss at Penn State, Gary Zajac, and I approached the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, outlined the previous projects, and offered to connect them with the software company that provided the software in the U.K. projects. The two organizations subsequently thrashed out a memorandum of understanding for a six-month demonstration project that Gary and I were asked to provide an assessment of. That assessment is now completed and publicly available here (or view the executive summary).

So how does OMS work? Well, the software used in the projects I’ve worked on monitors computers on which the software is installed for pre-defined prohibited words and phrases. These are words and phrases that have been considered, a priori, to be exemplars of inappropriate use. In the context of criminal justice, this involved words and phrases relating to indecent images of children (e.g., common search terms), soliciting children for sexual activity, installing evidence-eliminating software, etc. – all of which were generated in collaboration with relevant criminal justice and third-sector organizations.

When the software detects a match between a word/phrase, typed or viewed, with one from any of its server ‘libraries’ it captures an image of the user’s screen at that precise moment. These captured images can then be viewed remotely by the monitoring agent by logging into the same secure server, via a web-portal, from any computer with internet access. This allowed four agents from the PBPP Pittsburgh District Office to remotely monitor potential violations of acceptable computer use for seven adult male registered sex offender clients with prior agent-imposed restrictions on access to personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and/or communications technology, for an average duration of approximately 4.4 months.

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to hone my program evaluation skills and took this as an opportunity to dig a little deeper into a novel, strengths-based approach to community management. The previous evaluations took the form of client satisfaction surveys that, due to the neophyte nature of the approach, were undeniably unsophisticated in the depth of analysis. This time, I wanted to explore not only the success with which the approach could be implemented, but also the theoretical aims and purpose of the approach – what is the intended and expected theory of change for such a method? What precisely are we trying to do here?

To understand the theory of change, I developed a basic logic model of OMS. This was my interpretation:


The figure above outlines the mission and implementation elements of the OMS approach; noting the various inputs and activities in which the program stakeholders engage. Below is a systematic approach to understanding the intended short-term, medium-term, and long-term outcomes of those inputs and activities.


In short, the logic model suggests that developing good policy and procedures, providing the software to those with the means to use it, monitoring and responding appropriately to captures, and supporting pro-social computer use, should help supervising agents better understand (and more swiftly respond) to risk. At the same time it should bolster more efficient working practice and help create more inclusive professional relationships. For clients, OMS is intended to reduce dependency on social services, support pro-social computer use, and ultimately provide guardianship that can assist then to manage any potentially-recidivistic circumstances they encounter online.

Nonetheless, at this fledgling stage the key issue was correct implementation. What the PBPP wanted to know was whether the approach could be feasibly implemented and adds value to agents’ working practices. Although agents remained skeptical about sex offender clients being allowed to own a computer, they reported a sense of inevitability that restricting sex offender clients’ access to communications technology would become increasingly difficult and that the OMS approach had a positive impact on their work and would be of benefit to the ongoing community management of sex offender clients.

As anticipated, some problems in operational implementation were raised. These included issues around availability and attendance in training and its relationship with agents’ opinions about the user-friendliness of the software, and the apparent lack of enforcement of the intended frequency and duration of monitoring and a lack of uniformity in levels of monitoring between agents. Nonetheless, this feasibility study found that the OMS approach was sound and implementable in theory and those difficulties in implementation are such that we anticipate that they could be resolved through realistic changes to implementation and better communication between the various stakeholders.

It was concluded that with targeted modifications in practical implementation of the approach, the PBPP can achieve the goal of incorporating OMS into supervisory practice and to provide PBPP agents with an extra tool with which to ensure public safety – one that also has potential important pro-social benefits for the client – and thus make a valuable contribution to established methods for the supervision of sex offenders in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Given the current legislative context this approach may be highly beneficial to achieving that balance between maintaining public protection and supporting successful reentry, by encouraging pro-social internet use while providing adequate guardianship in the face of online criminal opportunities.


Suggested citation:
Elliott, I. A. (2014, October 20). Community reboot: Getting former prisoners safely back online [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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