Learn: Transforming the learning experience, through technology

A Secure, Modern Education Where It’s Desperately Needed

Educational opportunities are severely lacking in the U.S. prison system—but technology is finally starting to fill the void.

Of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., more than 35 percent don’t have a high school diploma or GED. About 94 percent don’t have any education beyond high school. That’s more than 2 million people who will someday leave prison lacking the basic skills needed to join today’s workforce. And when former inmates don’t find work shortly after being released, 31 to 70 percent reoffend, depending on what state they live in.

When they land a job, however, the situation changes drastically: Just 3.3 to 8 percent of those who find employment shortly after their release are later reimprisoned. How can we increase an inmate’s likelihood of finding employment after they’ve served time? Through education, according to years of research.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

In 2013, the RAND Corporation released a study that tracked 30 years of inmates’ enrollment in educational programs. The data showed that with advanced training in a trade or college-level classes during their sentences, people were 13 percent more likely to land a job upon being released. Across the board, those who enrolled in educational programs were 43 percent less likely to reoffend.

To continue seeing this type of success, said Jeremy Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit organization World Possible, two things must happen. First, educational opportunities must be widely available. An easy and low-cost way to make that happen is to rely on internet-based learning tools. That would enable the second requirement: the educational materials must be up-to-date. And today that means they must be tech-based.

Both of these conditions are impossible in most penitentiaries right now, said Schwartz, because most inmates can’t get online. Administrators have long cited security issues and cost as reasons why the internet cannot be offered, but World Possible is designing a system that could finally change this.

“The issue in prisons before this was that you couldn't really put inmates online, and if you did, you had to have them be monitored,” Schwartz said. World Possible has been building servers called RACHEL—short for Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning—for prisons across 14 states. These servers host authorized digital libraries of content and include resources like Wikipedia for Schools, MIT's OpenCourseWare, and even TED Talks. Inmates can then use tablets and laptops to access that information.

“By making copies of the internet and limiting them to the content that is purely educational in nature,” Schwartz added, “we’re able to kind of get through that barrier and provide them access to a lot of the things they would have outside a facility.”

The start-up Edovo is also creating technology aimed at increasing inmates’ access to education. The company provides secure tablets that are loaded with materials for literacy and GED training, financial instruction, and substance abuse therapy. The tablets block external communications and provide prisons with real-time data to track any inappropriate usage. “Education technology removes the constraint of personnel and programming space and allows the users to learn what they want, how they want, when they want,” said Tyler Jennings, the chief technology officer at Edovo.

While these solutions are generated by start-ups, penitentiaries are also starting to focus on the issue. California’s San Quentin State Prison has created an internal tech incubator called Code.7370. It’s built on a closed network and offers inmates a chance to learn coding languages, among other valuable skills.

The ultimate goal of implementing secure educational technology is to improve inmates’ lives both while they are incarcerated and after they are released, Schwartz said. When this goal is realized, it stands to significantly shift the outcomes and post-prison opportunities for millions of Americans. And it comes at a minimal cost to taxpayers: For every dollar invested in education, $4 to $5 is saved in future imprisonment costs.

“We’re trying to get people started with education in a low-cost way and see if this is something that we can get them excited to continue doing,” Schwartz said. “We’re really trying to replace behaviors with a desire to learn.”

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of LEARN, our discussion on how emerging technologies promise to change the educational experience as we know it, from elementary schools to prisons and everywhere between.