The latest data shows that only 22 percent of Americans in prison have ever used a computer. This gap in computing basics is just one of many obstacles to reintegration into modern society upon their release. That’s why among both prisoners and forward-thinking administrators there’s an appetite for increased access to digital education resources, in an attempt to address the mismatch between what’s being taught on the inside and what’s relevant on the outside.
Viable jobs upon a prisoner’s release will depend on familiarity with technology, not just for professions like programming and device repair, but also for a host of softer skills like the basics of email etiquette.
Just as digital adaptation behind bars could help integrate inmates into the world’s digital future, it might also further a kind of self-directed, interactive, go-at-your-own-pace education needed in a place so ill-designed for learning.
While profit motives might get in the way of rehabilitation—and regulatory caution will be important to ensuring that educational outcomes aren’t sacrificed to these motives—government funding for prison education remains contentious. Despite the data about education’s positive influence on recidivism, taxpayers often prefer that their money not be spent on criminals. For instance, in response to a July 2016 OregonLive article about OYA’s receipt of a $1.1 million federal grant for college and career prep, some readers were up in arms about “rewarding” those who break the law with more resources.
OYA’s strategy has been to make the best use of the state and federal funds available, through building relationships with nonprofits, collecting donated equipment, and sharing resources within the correctional system and with school districts. OYA estimates that it spent approximately $80,000 in the last three years on Chromebooks, Chromeboxes, RACHEL servers, and related equipment. Joy Koenig, principal of Oak Creek’s Three Lakes High School, says, “We use technology with purpose. We are not the jet-setters for technology in the education world.”
The federal corrections system faces even more constraints than the state and county levels, for reasons including its massive scale, older inmates, and a complex funding structure that doesn’t necessarily reward good performance. Hodas points out that the DOJ spends significantly less per student on education than state prison systems do.
So how long would it take for a blended, online learning model to achieve significant take-up, say, with 25 percent of federal inmates meaningfully engaged with educational technology? According to Hodas, optimistically, a five-year scenario is possible.
Meanwhile, it’s state prisons that lock up a massive 1.35 million people, compared to those 211,000 in federal prisons, which makes Sonnenberg’s doctoral research particularly relevant. Preliminary numbers are encouraging; his data indicates that across Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, the number of graduates increased from 65 to 133 between 2013 and 2014 after a digital learning management system was brought in.
Researchers agree that while prison education is clearly cost-effective, what we need now is stronger evidence about which forms of education are working. It would be unreasonable to see technology as a panacea, but in light of the intractable institutional problems and resource constraints of the U.S. prison system, it’s one of several avenues we should be exploring.
Just as there was when the Quaker William Rogers began educating prisoners in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, we can expect some fear and resistance to introducing digital resources into prisons. Thick walls and isolated locations alone challenge connectivity, and the low political appetite for risk means that the status quo is more attractive. But as 40 percent of those leaving American prisons will be re-incarcerated within three years, why not load the cautionary cannon and try something new.