Virtual Learning Transforms Prisoners’ Lives

By Cait Etherington
March 03, 2017

For many years, educators and prison reformers have recognized the direct link between educational attainment and the likelihood of ending up in prison. Likewise, there is a recognized correlation between an individual’s ability to successfully reintegrate into society (after being incarcerated) and their level of education. In other words, low levels of education both impact one’s likelihood of offending and one’s likelihood of committing a second or subsequent offense that leads to incarceration. There is now a widespread recognition, at least outside the United States, that virtual learning transforms prisoners’ lives. Indeed, in many parts of Europe, it is commonplace for incarcerated populations to have access to online courses whether they are serving a short sentence for a minor offense or a life sentence. Despite compelling evidence that eLearning may be a more effective way to reach the prison population than traditional classroom-based learning, in the United States, major obstacles continue to block efforts to bring virtual classrooms into the prison environment.

Average Levels of Educational Attainment and the Impact on Incarceration Rates

Window and computerThe United States has a notoriously high population of incarcerated individuals. In 2015, there were an estimated 6,741,400 persons being supervised in adult correctional systems. Shockingly, this high number actually represents a notable drop from 2014 when an additional 115,600 persons were being supervised in adult correctional systems. Visible minorities and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison system and so too are people with low levels of educational attainment.

One 2009-2010 study in Florida found that 71.7 percent of the state’s incoming prisoners had less than GED Prep skills or less than a 9th grade proficiency in core subjects.  The Florida study more or less mirrors nationwide statistics. The U.S. Bureau of Justice reports that 56 percent of federal inmates, 67 percent of inmates in state prisons, and 69 percent of inmates in local jails have not completed high school.

Lois Rand, a senior policy adviser with the Rand Cooperation, describes the current U.S. prison population as one with low levels of educational attainment but emphasizes, “Education can have a huge effect in really helping them to gain the skills they need and prepare them to be employed. So as we look at the larger picture of how we reduce mass incarceration and investments in correctional budgets, part of that discussion needs to be what programs have the potential to really help us reduce those high costs we are currently paying as a society.” Rand further notes that analyzing 30 years of research to examine the effectiveness of prison education for inmates reveals some very powerful findings: “What we found was that, if an individual participates in any type of correctional education program—whether it be adult basic ed, GED preparation, college education or vocational training—they had a 13 percentage point reduction in their risk of being re-incarcerated. That’s an enormous reduction in the risk. And for those that participated in post-secondary education programs—college programs—their reduction in risk of re-incarceration was 16 percentage points. A substantial reduction.”

How Virtual Learning Transforms Prisoners’ Lives in Europe

LaptopDespite the major push to bring both high school and college-level courses to incarcerated individuals (e.g., a growing number of colleges and universities, such as Bard College in Upstate New York, now have degree granting programs for individuals in the state prison system), delivering an effective prison-based college program can be challenging.  Kelly Stauffer, a humanities professor of history who has worked in several college prison programs, explains: “I will be in the middle of a course and some days, there’s a lock down so class is just cancelled. Sometimes, I show up and one of my students is gone, and it turns out that he’s been transferred to a new facility, often for good behavior, but this means he is no longer able to complete the course and as a result, he loses his credit hours. Prison life is full of these unexpected variables and attending a course every week at the same time is just not always a viable option. eLearning is widely used in other national prison systems for this reason.”

Stauffer is right. Outside the United States, many prison systems rely heavily on eLearning to ensure that prisoners can not only access a wider range of courses but also avoid having their studies disrupted when transferred to a new facility. As early as 2008, 54 of Sweden’s 57 prisons were hooked up to a national network allowing students moving from one prison to another prison to continue seamlessly engaging in their courses.  But this doesn’t mean that Swedish prisoners have open access to the Internet. Students are permitted to go online for educational reasons but their online activities are monitored by a tutor at all times.  Similar programs now exist throughout Europe with efforts driven by organizations, such as HERO (Health and Educational Support for the Rehabilitation of Offenders), which is supported by the European Commission and has nine partners located in five European countries.

A 2010 report by European-based organization, LICOS (Learning Infrastructure for Correctional Services), concluded that eLearning has many benefits in a prison environment. First, eLearning expands the types of courses available to the incarcerated population. Second, it holds the potential to increase the number of prisoners participating in education programs. Third, eLearning can be more easily geared to meet the needs of individual learners and therefore, it can more easily be adjusted to support students with specific needs be they second-language needs or learning disabilities.  Fourth, online courses can be offered in various lengths (e.g., one might take a one-credit courses or two-credit course while completing a short sentence). Fifth, courses and instructors can follow students throughout the system (e.g., from facility to facility). Finally, increasingly, one needs basic computer skills to obtain work; in this sense, whatever courses one chooses to take while serving a sentence, if they are online, the student is also acquiring the computer literacy skills needed to survive and thrive in the outside world.

Obstacles to Virtual Learning in the U.S. Prison System

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, has argued, “The school-to-prison pipeline starts and ends with schools.” Virtual learning could be a viable way to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline to which Wise alludes, but as much as virtual learning transforms prisoners’ lives, in most U.S. states, it is impossible for incarcerated individuals to gain access to even heavily monitored online courses. While there has been some growing debate about Internet access being a right not a privilege and thereby something to which prisoners should also have access, it seems likely that until online access opens up, incarcerated individuals in the United States will continue to experience educational barriers that could be overcome.

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