Inmate Reform Goes Digital

California Department of Corrections seeks to cut cost by going digital.

In America, the effects of the prison industrial complex are profound.  According to United States Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2014, the correctional population in the United States, including those on probation or parole, was 6.8 million people[1].  Of those 6.8 million in the correction system, approximately 2.2 million or 32 percent, are incarcerated[1]. As the cost of housing inmates rise, and as prison get ever more crowded, state and federal governments have begun to thin their prison populations. Every year tens of thousands of these convicted felons are released from incarceration and attempt to re-integrate into society.

Recidivism

A major problem with released felons is recidivism or relapsing into criminal behavior. Although prison is technically supposed to be a correctional and rehabilitative process, according to the National Institute of Justice, within three years 67.8 percent of released prisoners were rearrested[2]. Of those re-arrested, more than half were rearrested within a one year period[3]. This alarming stats, combined with overcrowding and budget cuts, have forced the California Department of Corrections to get more aggressive in seeking cost-effective ways to tackle the recidivism issue.  One method that has proven successful is inmate education.

Rehabilitation

The profound effect of education is perhaps most easily seen amongst inmates. For example, according to research by the Rand Foundation, “inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not[4].”  For every one dollar spent on inmate education four to five are saved on incarceration cost[5]. Traditionally, inmate education was delivered in a classroom or lecture setting. However, as inmate populations have swelled, and economic realities have hastened the rate of inmate release, prisons have found it infeasible to maintain the classroom model.  Often times, there simply isn’t enough space to dedicate to these efforts.  

Going Digital

In light of this, and following a greater global trend in education, inmates have increasingly had their educational content delivered digitally.  Accordingly, many companies have begun entering the space of providing content specifically tailored for inmates. One of these companies is Alison, a company based in Galway, Ireland. California Department of Corrections contracted with also to offer “Advanced Diploma in Workforce Re-entry Skills”, an online course for their inmates. The massively open online course (MOOC) focuses on four key areas: basic study skills, basic IT skills, customer service and basic food hygiene training[5].  Inmates learn how to create documents in Microsoft Word and manipulate spreadsheets using Microsoft Excel, and generally are prepared to work in the service industry — the industry that hires the most felons[6].

Inmate using Edovo. http://blogs-images.forbes.com/annefield/files/2016/03/IMG_3135.jpg?width=960
Inmate using Edovo.Source:  http://blogs-images.forbes.com/annefield/files/2016/03/IMG_3135.jpg

While the online education initiative is a step in the right direction, since the course is offered online its effectiveness is limited by the availability of computers. Recognizing this limitation,  Jail Education Solutions, an edtech startup has created a handheld tablet uniquely tailored for prison use with the objective of getting educational opportunity to as many inmates as possible. The tablet, called Edovo, can be operated on a closed prison network and offers a plethora of educational content ranging from GED coursework to vocational instruction[7]. Jail Education Solutions has gamified the learning by offering incentives for inmates to complete coursework on the Edovo.  When an inmate completes a course he is rewarded with points he can use to purchase media on device. The California Department of Corrections started piloting Edovo with a handful of inmates in mid-2016.

Moving Foward

Driven by budgetary concerns, the California Department of Corrections has taken many innovates steps towards improving the efficiency with which is delivers educational content to its inmates by going digital. Having started first with MOOCs and then graduating to digital content on tablets, the California Department of Corrections has been able to greatly expand access while keeping costs low, but there are even more opportunities to digitalize operation outside of education. There are many ways this can happen for example: increased digitalization of prisoner records and files, private-cloud based monitoring and surveillance systems, increased use of biometrics for security purposes, as well as digital kiosks for commissary.  These changes can help reduce required prison staff while increases prison safety and should be seriously considered as  California Department of Corrections moves forward.

WC: 700

[1]http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5519

[2]http://www.nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism/pages/welcome.aspx

[3] ibid

[4]http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR200/RR266/RAND_RR266.pdf

[5]http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhigh/2015/07/21/ceo-of-the-worlds-first-mooc-provides-hope-to-former-prisoners-through-education/#2d575c8a3126

[6]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/online-course-prison-education-recidivism_us_55e4cf3ae4b0aec9f3544bd5

[7]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/07/prison-tech-programs_n_6981426.html

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-33478931

[8]http://www.forbes.com/sites/annefield/2016/03/12/edovo-maker-of-tablet-based-education-for-inmates-aims-to-reduce-recidivism-and-continues-to-grow/#46a6d0ac7a90

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7 thoughts on “Inmate Reform Goes Digital

  1. Τιμή Ωκα,

    The correctional facility issues being addressed in your blog are very important and effect everyone, but often go unaddressed. Thank you for shining light on a major issue. These unique applications of technology are a step in the right direction for solving the problem of delivering cost effective and efficient rehabilitation to inmates within the correctional system. The utilization of technology to deliver educational curriculum is a progressive industry currently taking shape. It is not only a major opportunity in the prison system; with rising cost of education in general, the opportunity to perfect this system can be monetized and extended to everyone. Using this technology in the prison system while proving and refining its capability is a win-win for everyone; the taxpayer, the government, and most importantly, the inmates.

  2. Great post, Τιμή Ωκα! Reform of the criminal justice is an issue which deserves significantly more airtime, and I’m excited to see the progress that California has made in incorporating digital education into their programs. In my opinion, the most important aspect for the subsequent diffusion of this technology is the ratio you mention of dollars spent on education vs. spent on reincarceration. I look forward to seeing data on this new project as well, since I believe those numbers may become even more stark with this highly effective format. I wonder whether similar programs could be implemented for those on parole, including digital check-ins, geotagging, and continued education and support, reducing recidivism, improving lives and saving money. Hopefully similarly creative programs will be introduced in other states, as well!

  3. Thank you for this post! Very interesting, and I’m glad to know there are companies innovating in this space. I also think there are huge opportunities to make an impact, and I echo your point about those being outside of education. Based on my limited knowledge, my thinking behind why the focus seems to be on education is that it is an area that will help reduce costs down the line. Similar to the comment by “TOM” above, I am curious to see what the potential savings are by reducing incarceration and look forward to seeing the data generated by the new technologies. I think there would be additional economic productivity benefits (beyond the inherent benefits of education) as well. One question I had is around the pros and cons of Alison vs. Edovo and how the California Department of Corrections prioritizes the introduction of these and other new developments.

  4. This was a very well written post and clearly points out the shortfalls of the US prison system. The value of a dollar invested in rehabilitation and education for inmates seems to far exceed the cost of reincarnation down the line as you’ve pointed out. Unfortunately the short-sightedness of many US lawmakers makes this sensible investment near impossible. I like the concept of shifting to digital education to reduce the costs of administering these educational programs. However, until the general problem of overcrowding in prisons is addressed, I fear these types of programs will not be long-lived. Attempts to reduce the overall incarcerations are necessary – legislation to reduce the number of non-violent crime incarcerations would certainly help.

  5. What a great initiative! With the push towards digitizing content for prisoners, I am wondering how this content will be kept secure / who will monitor this closed prison network. With moving the content delivery to handheld tablets that can be used to purchased other media, I am a bit suspicious of how certain prisoners may use this connectivity maliciously, leading to a compromise to the safety of the prison system. Perhaps prisons can mitigate this risk by ensuring they have data highly secured/not allowing the purchase of additional media which may be unsecured or only allowing those prisoners that are vetted/showing good behavior to use the platform.

  6. Really interesting and important topic – thank you! This seems like a great use of technology. It seems like there are some good studies to back up the effectiveness of education systems like Edovo. I wonder if the fact that Edovo is a digital educational program can help with the collection of even more data that will help make future programs more effective in helping people find jobs after prison and avoid returning. Are there legal issues that get in the way of Jail Education Services collecting data on their participants’ paths after prison? Do they have a system in place for improving their offerings on the basis of the data that they collect?

  7. Very cool post! I am glad to see attention being paid to what I think is one of the greatest challenges facing our country- the mass incarceration of our citizens.

    I definitely applaud these efforts to move towards digital learning in prisons- especially to the extent that this can increase access to courses and skill-building to a larger number of people in prison.

    However, I do have some concerns about moving in completely a digital direction in this very unique prison context. I would think that in order for a former inmate to successfully get a job once s/he is out of prison, social interactions, including ability to work in teams and communicate effectively will play a large role in their success in the workplace. I also have read many studies showing how important social capital can be in helping people to actually find jobs. So I worry a little bit that moving too far towards technology-based learning could deprive prisoners of useful social interactions in a live classroom setting that could prove useful once back in the working world. On the social capital side, the people that prisoners meet in classes in prison could actually be very helpful in helping them find jobs afterwards. So, as laudable as the efforts are, I would just advise perhaps a bit of caution in moving towards a fully digital prison education model.

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