Blockchain Behind Bars: The Case for Cryptocurrency in Criminal Justice

Cover Image Source: Flickr

“I’ve been locked up since 2003,” writes Joe Garcia, an incarcerated journalist at San Quentin State Prison. “Back then Apple had barely launched iTunes, and I was still in awe of the so-called high-speed connection I’d paid Time Warner to install in my apartment. In all the years since then,” Garcia notes, “I haven’t logged a single second of internet activity. My frames of reference for what it means to be online now come from network television and print media.”

When blockchain and cryptocurrency first emerged in the early 2000s, the public developed an escalating fascination with these unfamiliar innovations. However, because U.S. prisons strictly disconnect their detainees from the digital world, most inmates like Garcia remained completely ignorant about this new wave of technology, even though crypto/blockchain expertise is now one of the fastest growing skills in demand within the U.S. job market.

Today, the United States imprisons nearly 2.2 million people, the majority of whom lack access to internet services and crypto/blockchain literacy resources. Although the United States comprises only 4.4 percent of the global population, it incarcerates a staggering 22 percent of all prisoners internationally. As a result, millions of Americans have been left behind in the wake of the digital revolution, leaving them ill-equipped to acquire the crypto and blockchain knowledge necessary to re-enter society and the workforce after their release. 

Cryptocurrency is a decentralized digital monetary exchange system, and blockchain is a digital ledger that can be used to log cryptocurrency transactions and store immutable data. In addition to their well-known financial applications, these burgeoning industries have also produced various innovations applicable throughout prison systems internationally — from monitoring released criminals and detecting parole violations, to building incarcerees’ fiscal independence, and in turn, easing their transition back into society. 

Therefore, the United States should invest in the research and implementation of crypto/blockchain networks within its criminal justice system. Incorporating these technologies would not only improve American law enforcement’s structural efficiency, but it would also foster greater social equity and enhance inmates’ long-term job prospects after their release.

Cryptocurrency and blockchain have already entered judicial structures abroad as a tool for surveilling parolees. For example, in Foshan, China, law enforcement officials established a community correction program that uses the blockchain in order to track the location of convicted offenders in real-time. This system offers a more reliable alternative to monitoring prisoners during their parole periods. While the United States still relies on outdated, inefficient systems — like manual check-ins and overburdened case workers — to keep track of its paroled criminals, China’s implementation of blockchain technology has simplified the entire process. 

The Chinese government mandates that its parolees wear electronic bracelets fitted with a tracking encryption program at all times, thereby enabling law enforcement to gather meaningful, real-time data from each individual under surveillance. China’s system not only offers enhanced security and supervision of criminals while using fewer government resources, it also yields more accurate results. Since the system’s technology is rooted in blockchain, data gathered from parolees is immutable — completely resistant to tampering and corruption.

However, crypto and blockchain usage is not merely limited to law enforcement: it also serves as a tool for positive social advocacy for marginalized communities who have been historically disadvantaged by the criminal justice system. For example, more than 70 percent of Americans currently incarcerated in local jails are under pre-trial detention. Since they have not yet been convicted, they are presumed innocent, but must be held in captivity due to the bail system. With monetary bail, defendants are required to pay a fee amount determined by a judge to dictate whether or not they will be able to await trial outside of jail. If they cannot muster the funds necessary to pay their bail, they must remain behind bars until their case is either fully adjudicated or dismissed. In effect, the bail system allows wealthy individuals to pay their way out of the jail time that lower-income individuals must serve for the same alleged crimes. 

Image Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Due to the enormous racial wealth gap in the United States fostered by centuries of systemic oppression and discrimination, the bail system results in significantly higher rates of incarceration among people of color, particularly Black Americans. In response, a newly-created computer program called Bail Bloc is working to combat this injustice. By downloading the Bail Bloc app, users can volunteer their computer’s spare power to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero, which is then donated to non-governmental organizations dedicated to bailing out prisoners who cannot afford to pay their bail fees. The app allows users to devote anywhere from 10% to 50% of their total leftover processor capacity to mining Monero. After the Monero is collected, Bail Bloc exchanges it for U.S dollars on a monthly basis, and then donates all of this money to various bail funds within the National Bail Fund Network. 

According to the co-founder of Bail Bloc, Grayson Earle, “The idea is to get people to volunteer their spare computing power to mine, so it doesn’t require them to make any cash donations. It’s like creating an ad hoc supercomputer with the purpose of mining cryptocurrency.” In selecting a cryptocurrency to use for this program, Earle wanted to ensure the utmost privacy for released detainees, saying, “I chose Monero because it was a fairly stable coin and is ASIC-resistant. I knew that our target participant had a laptop so we needed CPU mining to be viable. More recently, Monero has made GPU mining less viable which also improves the viability of our project.” In April 2020, Bail Bloc had an average of 300 users running the program on their computers, but at its peak, it boasted 2,500 users, including Grimes, prominent Canadian musician and girlfriend of crypto enthusiast Elon Musk.

Image Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Furthermore, blockchain technology also has promising implications for promoting personal finance skills and enhancing cryptocurrency knowledge among prisoners, in turn, facilitating their re-entry into the increasingly tech-driven workforce following their release. For example, a cryptocurrency called CellBlocks is working to digitize major prison economies in order to make inmate financial transactions safer, more reliable, transparent, and consistent. If implemented successfully, CellBlocks would be the world’s first decentralized cryptocurrency to penetrate the United States carceral system. This technology would not only enable inmates to exchange money without the risk of violence, exorbitant fees, or theft by prison administrators, but also, it would keep an immutable blockchain network record of every transaction circulating in the prison system, thereby reducing the risk of corruption or fiscal impropriety. Projects like CellBlocks serve as a promising avenue to expand inmate financial literacy and acquisition of crypto/blockchain skills in order to promote successful reintegration into society after serving their sentence.

Nonetheless, lawmakers, prison administrators, and many members of the public are understandably concerned about the potential security hazards of providing prisoners with access to crypto/blockchain resources through digital networks like the Internet. However, there are a variety of systems designed to offer incarcerated individuals real-time access to the Web without compromising public safety. For instance, the country of Belgium has historically employed a platform known as PrisonCloud that hosts restricted and monitored internet access for inmates. Furthermore, countries like Finland and Denmark have open prisons — jails with minimal security — which boast some of the world’s lowest recidivism rates, and also offer their inmates limited access to the Internet. 
Nearly all currently incarcerated Americans will eventually be allowed to return to their communities. But as Garcia notes, “It can be hard to keep up with changes in technology even when you’re experiencing them firsthand. When you’re locked away, it’s virtually impossible…I worry every day about reentering a global economy with my grossly outdated tech skill set. I know the job market will expect internet fluency more than ever in the post-pandemic world, since much of America’s…workforce has gone remote.” In accordance with this challenge, President Joe Biden recently expressed his belief that most Americans behind bars deserve an authentic second chance at life. By integrating blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies nationwide, U.S. prison systems have the opportunity to not only improve their systematic efficiency, but also to provide their inmates with a legitimate chance at having successful, productive lives after they are released into a world that is increasingly driven by crypto and blockchain. Since these technologies are becoming integral parts of the future, the United States must disentangle its criminal justice system from the past by embracing the crypto and blockchain innovation tide.

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