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. Of those 6.8 million in the correction system, approximately 2.2 million or 32 percent, are incarcerated. 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.
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. Of those re-arrested, more than half were rearrested within a one year period. 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.
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.” For every one dollar spent on inmate education four to five are saved on incarceration cost. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.