May 09, 2014

Sheriff's office

Prison isn't usually considered a hotbed of innovation. Credit: Howard Powell / WGBH News

Think for a minute about the group of people that is most ostracized in this country. There are a bunch of contenders. But it’s hard to come up with anyone more sidelined than prisoners — who actually become invisible to us — off in facilities removed from the rest of society.

But with 12 million cycling through the system each year, most prisoners are going to eventually rejoin the "real world."

How do you reinvent their experience on the inside in a way that improves their chances once they get out?

Brian Hill has a plan. He's the co-founder of Jail Education Solutions (JES). Next month, Jail Education Solutions will roll out about 2,000 tablets in the country’s six largest prisons.

The tablets will offer various programs to inmates, from ways to earn their GEDs and college credits, to access to legal information, career services, and even anger management courses. They offer a fair amount of capabilities, Hill says, without total free reign to surf the web. 

JES Dashboard

A view of the JES dashboard Credit: Jail Education Solutions

In terms of cost, the tablets won't be on the taxpayers dime. Instead inmates will rent the devices for a dollar or two. Hill is also working on a program to allow rentals to be paid for with an hour or two of work. As an added incentive, prisoners could also earn points to be redeemed for movies or other rewards.

More importantly for the correctional system as a whole: the tablets could continue to have benefits once prisoners are released. For one, it will provide them with technical skills that many might not have after years of incarceration. Hill is quick to point out that tablets are a lot more intuitive than your average computer, which might make the learning curve a bit less steep.

Plus, the tablets will be integrated online so that they can continue to use their programs once on the outside – allowing probation and parole officers to communicate with them. One of the biggest problems with the correctional system today is the rate at which people go back to jail. The hope is that with more education, especially on the latest devices, prisoners will have a better shot at staying out.

But will those who have been "put away" actually use the program?

Jeffrey Ivers is an inmate at the Middlesex County House of Correction in Massachusetts. He's on his ninth incarceration for various offenses. Many of them were graffiti-related, or punishment for breaking parole.

"Every time I come to jail, I always think it’s going to be my last time," he admits. He first went inside 17 years ago — in the days of dial-up AOL internet.

"Technology isn’t really a thing for me.  I don’t even know how to turn a computer on," says Ivers. "I did start a Facebook, which I still don’t know how to use. I’m used to using a pen and paper, envelope and stamps."

That could soon change, with Ivers' own prison in Middlesex County planning to soon roll out it's own tablet-based education program (separate from JES).

Sean McAdam, the prison's superintendent, thinks it is time for the system to try to change.

"I think, in corrections, we need to start to understand that the world beyond our walls is technology-driven, and to think that we are going to restrict [the prison population] to pen and pencil and paper is really unrealistic."

Middlesex County prison

Will tablet learning be successful? Some inmates don't take advantage of existing programs. Credit: Howard Powell / WGBH News

McAdam remains skeptical as to how quickly or effectively such programs will catch on, as some inmates don't even take advantage of existing educational programs.

Still, he says, "I think most inmates want to make the most of their time here. A small population doesn’t want to do any of the programming, but the majority here don’t want to be here any more than we do. So I think most of them are willing to try anything."

prison, Culture, Cristina Quinn

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