Editor’s Picks

eLearning Makes Fits and Starts in U.S. Prisons

By Henry Kronk
July 16, 2018

Throughout the world, issues of connectivity and data infrastructure continue to act as barriers to education. Even in the U.S., geography can prevent rural populations from receiving adequate internet connection. Single companies dominating local markets can also make the price prohibitive. Known variously as the ‘digital divide,’ ‘the homework gap,’ or ‘education deserts,’ a series of factors make online education difficult or impossible. But one environment proves more arid than the sparsest educational deserts: U.S. prisons.

The U.S. currently has nearly 2.3 million people behind bars. Many incarcerated Americans have a good amount of free time. And often, that free time is spent watching TV. “We watch a lot — all day, all night,” writes John J. Lennon, who is serving 28 years to life in Attica Correctional Facility, in a New York Times Op-Ed. “It’s called the ‘TV program.’ When prisoners watch TV instead of going to the yard, there’s less violence.”

In other situations, prisoners might work a full time schedule for very little pay. An inmate identified only as Trevor describes in a Pacific Standard article how he considers himself lucky for landing an ‘industries’ job. “We process linen from the surrounding hospitals, colleges, institutions, etc. Between one million and one and a half million pounds of linen gets processed through our facility every month. I work in the maintenance department, which is responsible for keeping the equipment running smoothly, maintaining operation of the machinery, scheduling down time for repairs, etc. This job also pays exceedingly well (comparably speaking) as, instead of the average monthly income of around $45.00, I earn roughly $150.00 monthly.”

Why Do Most Prisoners Have No Access to Online Learning?

Pursuing one’s education could be a better use of many prisoners’ time. There’s no shortage of very cheap or free online courses, educational resources, scholarships, and more available to anyone in the world with an internet connection. And that’s just it—U.S. prisoners have very limited or no ability to go online.

It used to be popular in U.S. prisons to pursue education. In the early ‘80s, there were 350 college degree programs specifically for prisoners. But following two decades that produced the War on Drugs, presidential candidates who promised to be tough on crime, and maximum sentencing laws, the funding for these programs was gutted. In 1994, Congress voted to remove Pell grant access to prisoners.

As things stand today, the majority of prisoners pursuing a degree do so through snail mail-based correspondence courses.

Educating incarcerated Americans isn’t just a popular issue with U.S. prisoners. It has the ability to significantly benefit tax payers. A large body of evidence correlates the likelihood of going to prison with lower education attainment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 56% of federal prisoners, 67% of state inmates, and 69% of those detained in local jails have not completed high school. What’s more, evidence suggests that education can significantly lower recidivism.

Roughly two thirds of released prisoners land back in jail within a three year period. But many believe that education can change that. A program in a Louisiana state womens prison has begun to give inmates tablets, headphones, and access to GED courses for free. The idea is that by preparing inmates for the job market, they’ll be less likely to resort again to crime.

“Part of being incarcerated is the rehabilitation process,” said Jade Trombetta, a senior manager at JPay, the prison services provider that collaborated on the initiative, according to local station KLFY. “Education is a huge element of rehabilitation.”

Education Translates Into Less Recidivism and Fewer Taxpayer Dollars Spent

The merits of educating prisoners is largely uncontroversial among researchers. A 2013 RAND Corporation survey found that educating inmates could reduce recidivism by 43%.

An education program launched in Sing Sing in 1998 currently has a 2% recidivism rate compared to New York’s average of 43%. A full 85% of those who have successfully completed their studies find a job in their field within three months of release.

As things stand, securing prisoners the right to use the internet and explore online education is not a priority for prison rights activists. Issues such as getting individuals proper medical care and legal services tend to take up a good amount of oxygen. But that doesn’t mean no one has tried.

Edovo, a tablet-based eLearning company, has been providing prisoners with online learning opportunities since 2014. Over 50,000 individuals have pursued their education through services. In April, the company raised $9 million to further their cause.

“Education and communication are the two main levers that lead to reductions in recidivism and improved success upon re-entry,” said Mitchel Peterman, who oversees business development for Edovo. “Maintaining constant communication with loves ones and support systems is not only incredibly beneficial for the mental health of an increased individual, but can also help for planning of vital elements for post-release life. Edovo provides the ability for SMS based messaging, photo sharing, and email correspondence. Our primary motive and driving factor is ensuring that communication rates are as low as possible, as increasing accessibility in communication will help drive lowered rates of recidivism.”

Cover Image: Feifei Peng