Prison ed tech takes off FEATURE
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Tablet-based systems in correctional facilities help inmates get educated, learn new skills—and maybe find a job when they’re released.

In his many years teaching prisoners incarcerated in Alabama’s state correctional system, Brannon Lentz has never seen anything like it. According to Lentz, dean of administration at J.F. Ingram State Technical College, over the course of more than a decade, he’s encountered a particular prisoner who has tried, on and off, to take vocational courses like cosmetology. Unable to accept guidance or get along with fellow classmates, she’d inevitably wind up in fights and either kicked out of the class or in a self-imposed exile.

But recently, Lentz encountered the prisoner again, only to discover she‘d undergone what seemed to be a transformation. Articulate and calm, “She talked like a different person,” he says.

Lentz credits the change to a new tablet-based platform introduced in six facilities in Alabama over the past year. Using specially designed equipment, the woman had immersed herself in anger management and other enrichment activities provided by the startup supplying the system, often practicing her new communications skills with others in her dorm. “She wasn’t getting into confrontations every week, like she used to,” he says.  “And you could see how proud she was of herself.” 

A recent report by Rand Corp found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43% lower chance of recidivating than those who don’t. In addition, according to the research, their odds of finding a job after release is 13% higher.

Reducing recidivism through technology

Alabama is one of a handful of states testing out a new way of delivering instruction to inmates in prisons and jails. By providing tablets and curriculum from such companies as American Prison Data Systems and Edovo, experts like Lentz hope to offer a cost-effective and sustainable way to tap potentially life-changing education. That means helping prisoners learn crucial communications, interpersonal and vocational skills, as well as improve their ABCs or get their GED. Ultimately, they hope such instruction will translate into employment in the world outside—and even reduce the likelihood of returning to prison for another stay.

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Certainly, there’s a growing consensus that the more educated offenders are, the less likely it is they’ll return to the correctional system. A recent report by Rand Corp found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43% lower chance of recidivating than those who don’t. In addition, according to the research, their odds of finding a job after release is 13% higher.

At the same time, in most cases, voters aren’t eager to allow government resources to support such education. Thus, tablet-based systems that can provide curriculum to a large number of inmates at a lower cost offer one promising solution. “Our hope is that, through this technology, a larger population of inmates will have access to education,” says Susan Lockwood, director of juvenile education for the Indiana Department of Correction Division of Youth Services.

Reading, writing, arithmetic and more

How does it work? Curriculum and content are delivered via a private cellular or Wi-Fi network to tablets designed to be sturdy and tamper-proof. Generally, coursework involves studies needed to get a vocational certification, earn a high school equivalency or obtain more proficiency in specific subjects, among other material. The emphasis is on self-paced instruction, but, in some cases, they’re tied to in-person class time, helping to supplement cash-strapped educational programs.

At the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility for girls ages 13 to 18 in Madison, Indiana, for example, teachers supplement their curriculum with materials students can tap via their tablets. “The facility doesn’t have the money to hire a teacher for every subject, so instructors can turn to content provided by highly qualified instructors,” says Lockwood. She’s seen an increase in the number of books girls are reading, because they have easy access to APDS’ online National Corrections Library. Reading scores also have improved, although she says that’s not attributable only to the tablets.

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There’s also the opportunity to learn about soft skills like parenting and workforce preparation. In fact, that’s where correctional officials report seeing a significant improvement. For example, Lockwood points to a teenager who was able to communicate with her counselor using the tablet and found it much less intimidating sharing her troubles over the system than in person. “It allowed the staff to help her,” says Lockwood.

Tunes as an incentive

Inmates also have access to music and videos. In some cases, they earn points by completing coursework that they can use to tap entertainment. In other cases, everyone has access to such fare.

Take the San Francisco County Jail, which is trying out tablets in both teacher-directed and self-paced instruction in housing units, as well as a charter school located in the jail. According to Steve Good, executive director of Five Keys Charter Schools and Programs, a nonprofit founded by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, he chose to make 150 songs available to anyone on the system, to better help inmates become comfortable with the platform. “If you aren’t used to this type of technology, the likelihood of someone trying it out is very slim,” he says. “With our approach, the more time folks spend on the system, the more often they explore other options.”

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.