By Christopher Zoukis
Technology use has grown in all aspects of life outside of prisons, including in classrooms. Prison classrooms and communities can also benefit greatly from the use of technology. There are many benefits to using technology within all education systems, including in prison settings. Personalized learning is recognized as being increasingly important to successful outcomes. One size does not fit all learning styles, and technology is one way to address personalization efficiently and effectively.
Blended learning, combining traditional teaching methods with supplementary technology, can provide access to a much wider range of content and resources. Along with traditional core teaching, it allows the individual student to access more material as needed, offers personalization within the educational system, and allows students to work at their own pace. This is especially important within the prison system where resources are limited, and where there are a wide variety of people with very different backgrounds and education levels. Formal education offerings may be infrequent, or limited to a certain number of participants. Technology use would also help streamline the process in cases where the population can be transient, such as being moved from one facility to another. It would ensure records from multiple institutions are combined and kept up to date, with as little disruption in education as possible. Interactive technologies can also be cost-effective, with the potential to purchase and circulate several of them for the equivalent cost of one staff member, but traditional teaching methods should not be entirely replaced.
The use of new technology also has the potential for more content creation by each institution, and can be used for vocational training, rehabilitation, careers skills, and mental health services. Boosting access to higher-tech options can be as simple as providing digital copies of books and learning materials versus relying on the limited materials donated to the prison library. The regular use of tablets on which these materials would be delivered would also increase much-needed technology skills.
American Prison Data Systems is one company providing secure educational technologies on a tablet-based system, which includes content, assessment tests, and delivery of small rewards for achieving goals, such as unlocking a song to listen to. Jail Education Solutions provides a system called Edovo, which provides a wide spectrum of educational resources, from college credit courses to anger management to financial literacy.
IDS is another similar system offering secure and managed learning. There are also other systems, such as JPay, which offers common-space kiosks in prisons providing music, gaming, e-mail video visitation services for inmates to connect to friends and family. Access to the service is through paid credits, and JPay users on the outside must purchase secure tablets from the company to communicate with inmates. However, there have been concerns expressed about the for-profit model used by such platforms and technology services, which are being accessed by some of the most impoverished members of the population. Complaints have been launched against Securus Technologies for the high cost of video calls, for example.
For those concerned about what kind of access these technologies provide to the greater digital world, the tablets used in prisons are completely secure. APDS, for example, uses a tablet that has been verified unhackable, and is encased in military grade plastic to ensure it is unbreakable.
These systems are now being tested in a number of states, including Alabama, which is using the American Prison Data Systems platform. APDS is also looking at expanding into telecommunications, financial services, and retail, ensuring that the needs of incarcerated individuals and their families are met comprehensively by one service, and which may make these systems even more attractive to all parties involved. Other states have already signed on to tablet based systems, including California, Indiana, Kansas, and New York.
Using technology like this, as long as it is comprehensive and well designed, and is not an additional cost burden to inmates, is another way to ensure that incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to use their free time constructively. They can improve themselves and their futures through technology and other programs. These systems may also help reduce inmate violence by addressing isolation and boredom. Technology also has the potential to be used widely to reach more individuals than ever before. This ultimately will help contribute to a reduction in recidivism, and the creation of stronger communities.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com