• Posted Tuesday, September 6, 2016

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Teachers and Technology in Correctional Facilities

With summer coming to an end and school starting up again across the country, there is no shortage of articles about the difficult work performed daily by educators in America’s schools. And for good reason; their job is very demanding. Even by those standards, though, the subset of teachers who work in correctional facilities face uniquely challenging conditions.

Western and Pettit have compiled some interesting statistics about the incarceration of the uneducated in the United States. At any given moment, one out of every eight high school dropouts is behind bars, including 37% of African-American dropouts.  The chance that someone without a high school diploma or its equivalent ends up behind bars is extremely high.  White dropouts have a 28% chance of ending up incarcerated at least once during their lifetimes, compared to 68% for African-Americans and 20% for Latinos.


Compared to typical schools, students who are incarcerated are more likely to be below grade level in basic skills, have a learning disability, and struggle with mental health issues (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015).

In correctional conditions, where the population consists of reluctant learners and those with various types of learning and behavioral issues, it is critical to deliver the tools that have been proven to be essential and necessary in non-correctional settings, tailored for the problems of learning (and living) behind bars.  The environment itself leads to a lack of consistency.  Lockdowns or other events can disrupt class, for example.  Programming resources are stretched.

Correctional students often dropped out of traditional education because of learning disabilities and behavioral issues, typically compounded by difficulties in their personal lives.  Their exacting circumstances required individualized attention and the application of tools designed to address these complex pedagogical needs specifically.  Without access to these, the reluctant learners fell through the cracks of the system and descended into criminal activity.

As adult learners taking secondary school programming, they may find themselves insecure and rusty when it comes to their study skills, unmotivated or unable to concentrate.

As adult learners behind bars, they may face further challenges to their ability to concentrate and to apply time on task, including time outside of the classroom.  They require individual coaching in order to stay on track, time and attention that is difficult to come by when educational and programming resources are spread thin.  And, perhaps most importantly, they require ongoing reasons for completing the program.

For those who think that deploying just any content or content that has not been designed, tested, and proven as the pedagogical best-of-breed with a “just-as-good” type of homegrown solution, putting technology into the hands of inmates may be counterproductive.  It can also be counterproductive if the vendor thinks that technology can be used to replace or minimize the role of the teacher.

In order to maximize their chances for success, incarcerated learners require an individualized educational plan that addresses their myriad hurdles:

 Differentiated instruction helps teachers design individualized education programs that focus on the student’s weaknesses with “extra practice, step-by-step directions, and special homework”

•  Chunking of learning tasks into manageable blocks (tailored for the individual student’s strengths and weaknesses) that make the student more engaged with the material

•  Scaffolding in which teachers form a “bridge between what students already know and what they cannot do on their own … Teachers often use this method by presenting a model of high-quality work before asking students to work on their own.”

•  Direct, private student-to-teacher communications channels gives the teachers and students a way to discuss issues as soon as they arise, or to focus the individualized education program iteratively, all away from the eyes of other inmates whose observation may distort the quality of this interaction

•  Behavioral incentives will help to motivate these reluctant learners when tied directly to achieving delineated learning objectives

For those who think that deploying just any content or content that has not been designed, tested, and proven as the pedagogical best-of-breed with a “just-as-good” type of homegrown solution, putting technology into the hands of inmates may be counterproductive.  It can also be counterproductive if the vendor thinks that technology can be used to replace or minimize the role of the teacher.

Without the proper coaching and the proper path, merely putting any one-size-fits-all educational content on reluctant learners in a difficult environment is setting them up to fail, with all of the confidence-destroying implications that implies.

Technology can certainly be transformational in a student’s education, but it cannot replace the personal, human connections that only a teacher can foster, or the ability to inspire higher levels of achievement (Owlcation, 2012). Having someone to whom they can talk, ask questions, and look for an example will always be a necessary resource for successful students.

American Prison Data Systems firmly believes that applying the best tools and techniques for educating men and women who could not complete their high school diplomas in the normal course and who now live behind bars (with all of the attendant difficulties this situation poses for learning) is a necessary requirement for any correctional system in assessing any educational solution.

APDS also firmly believes that whatever technology solution the facility adopts must be integrated with the work of the teaching staff in order to have maximum effect.

  • Posted Friday, September 2, 2016

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APDS Celebrates Three Years as a Public Benefit Corporation

This month marks the three-year anniversary of American Prison Data Systems as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC). On August 1st, 2013, the State of Delaware added a subchapter to its General Corporation Law allowing companies to convert to a PBC and take into account the social purpose of their actions beyond traditional corporate goals of maximizing profit for shareholders. More specifically, companies are required to state a specific public benefit that has a positive effect on one or more categories of persons, entities, communities or interests beyond its stockholders.

Shortly after this declaration, APDS filed to become the first ever Delaware PBC. In doing so, CEO Christopher Grewe stated his desire to address the lack of safe and effective means of providing educational content to incarcerated learners, which he believed was key to turning lives around and reducing rates of recidivism. APDS has dedicated the last four years to developing proprietary and delivery technology that provides high quality, one-to-one adaptive programming, both educational and rehabilitative. The State of Delaware recognized Grewe’s efforts and awarded APDS the prestigious designation in August, 2013.

APDS remains one of the few vendors that entered the correctional education space motivated by the desire to achieve social good, and we are proud to say this has remained of utmost importance three years later. The company’s highly specialized tablet technology has been used by inmates for over three million hours, with thousands of educational and rehabilitative videos, lessons and courses completed. Customer feedback has been universally positive and facilities using APDS tablets are reporting improvements in safety, educational attainment, and high levels of engagement with content. It is APDS’ ultimate hope that our efforts will result in lower rates of recidivism for years to come.

Read here for more information and a full description on how to become a PBC.

  • Posted Friday, August 26, 2016

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Justice Department deems mandatory fixed bail unconstitutional

Directly following the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) announcement suspending the use of private prisons, the DOJ deemed the ability to hold defendants in jail because they can’t afford bail as unconstitutional. The decision has been hailed a huge victory in bail reform for Criminal Justice Advocates.

The court filing came in the case of a Georgia man who was kept in jail for six nights after police arrested him for misdemeanor charges due to his inability to pay the fixed bail amount of $160. DOJ civil rights lawyers argued that courts must consider a person’s ability to pay and look at other ways of guaranteeing an appearance in court.

The court filing was the first time the government has taken such a position before a federal appeals court, and the latest step by the Obama administration in encouraging state courts to move away from imposing fixed cash bail amounts and jailing those who can’t pay.

Rather, “pretrial liberty must be the norm and detention prior to trial the carefully limited exception.” Those arrested on misdemeanor offenses should be released on their own recognizance, and other changes in post-arrest procedures must be made, such as the effective use of pretrial services.

APDS believes in a fair and equitable criminal justice system that does not discriminately punish based on indigence. We are deeply gratified to see that the US Department of Justice has come to the same conclusion, and applaud the decision based on democratic principle alone.

Read the Justice Department’s fixed-bail briefing here

  • Posted Thursday, August 25, 2016

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Justice Department announces plan to end the use of Private Prisons

Private prisons are both less safe and less effective than those run by the government. That’s the message from a memo released on August 18th by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.

“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote.

“I am directing that, as each contract reaches the end of its term, the Bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope,” she continued.

Bureau of Prison inmate population in private facilities is already expected to drop to less than 14,200 by May 1, 2017, with a larger declined possible based on actions taken after this memo’s release.

With our focus on programming and truly educational tablet systems, American Prison Data Systems applauds this announcement. The reality is that, though private prisons only hold between 5-8% of America’s prison population, inmates in those facilities are routinely underserved when it comes to programming, education, healthcare and more.

In the past, APDS has not worked within the private prison system. A balance sheet may show education and programming as expensive, but the truth is that offering inmates a chance at improving themselves while incarcerated is a reinvestment in our society as a whole. And we hold up our state and local jail and prison clients as members of the correctional space that see the value in education and programming.

Read the full memo from Deputy Attorney Yates here.

  • Posted Monday, August 22, 2016

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APDS and Operation Backpack team up to deliver school supplies to homeless children in need

On August 19th, the APDS team joined forces with the Volunteers of America’s Operation Backpack to help thousands of homeless school-aged kids in New York City prepare for school. The incredible project provides, with the help of over 180 sponsors, backpacks filled with grade specific supplies for K-12 students residing in homeless shelters across New York City.

Doing so not only prepares kids for a successful school year, but also helps eliminate the stigma associated with living in a shelter. For many of these children, beginning the school year with no backpack and few, if any, school supplies identify them as “disadvantaged” or as “shelter kids” from day one.  By reducing the hardship these students face, Operation Backpack hopes to aid their future success.

The project is an enormous undertaking, with nearly 18,000 filled backpacks required to serve this population. Throughout the summer months, hundreds of volunteers have both donated supplies, or gathered to help fill packs. We joined the project last Friday, spending the afternoon packing backpacks for the worthy cause. The day was a huge success, and APDS was thrilled to play even a small part in this wonderful project.

Check out some pictures from the day below:

APDS Support Associate, Lynette Gonzalez packs two bags at once for students in grades 5-8
APDS’ Tadesh Inagaki and Kevin Tripp stuff backpacks for Pre-k and Kindergarten aged children
Team APDS celebrates after a successful day with Operation Backpack!

  • Posted Tuesday, August 2, 2016

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Device Mobility in Correctional Settings is an Expertise

Giving inmates access to technology so that they can consume various types of permitted content and services safely and securely comes in essentially three flavors: static, Wi-Fi, and cellular 4G/LTE.

Static or tethered solutions are deployments of devices that can only be updated by being plugged into a fixed point connection, typically a kiosk.  Not only do you rule out real-time interactive services, but there are real concerns about the user experience to take into consideration.  Will the inmates get frustrated by having to connect infrequently?  Are the offenders getting the maximum rehabilitative benefit from the service if they can only update occasionally?  What happens if the incarcerated have to queue up for hours at a time in order to update their devices?  What kind of a burden does this impose on the facility IT staff in terms of maintaining a segregated fixed line connection, along with the related points of access?

Mobility is desirable.

But, Wi-Fi has its own set of problems.  While it may be tempting to think that the physical environment of a jail or prison is sufficient to prevent access to external Wi-Fi networks, that particular kind of lazy assumption can be dangerous.

Wi-Fi is not nearly as secure as cellular 4G/LTE, either.  Cellular 4G/LTE builds upon the bedrock of CDMA technology, the most secure wireless communications platform in the world.

For devices that use Wi-Fi to connect to the network, you cannot be entirely sure that they are connecting to the facility network.  They may be able to hack into other networks, or they may be able to set up other security breaches in which an offender’s associates set up rogue access points in order to communicate with the device behind bars.  Here’s an entertaining video showing a seven-year-old British girl hacking into a device after watching a short video she found after a cursory web search.

But, isn’t cellular 4G/LTE often weak in correctional environments given the constraints of the physical plant?  This is occasionally true, but the proliferation of so-called “swag” phones (or, illegal phones) in correctional facilities suggests that it is not as true as some might think.  Illegal phones are a significant form of contraband and they are used to do things that make correctional facilities explicitly more dangerous.

Some facilities have abundant ambient cellular signal; others have very poor signal, or intermittent signal, because of their physical location with respect to cellular towers, or constraints imposed by the physical plant such as metal and glass that blocks transmission.

Resolving cellular 4G/LTE signal in correctional environments is a difficult skill.  It requires an understanding of correctional environments and a good sense of the leading edge of wireless technology solutions.

With more than two years in the field, in correctional facilities across the country, American Prison Data Systems, PBC has developed this unique expertise.  We have seen almost every conceivable problem with signal transmission.  In one case, the local cellular tower sent its signal over a county jail which was located in a deep bowl in the terrain.  In another case, the city’s IT infrastructure included a critical radio system that was using wireless spectrum illegally, interfering with signal for our devices.  We have been deployed in segregated housing units with especially challenging physical layouts and in facilities that happen to lie at the conflicting transmission circles of two separate towers.

We have learned from all of these situations and found different ways to resolve weak ambient signal.

This experience has made us one of the most knowledgeable end users when it comes to signal augmentation in the Verizon system.

So much so, that when Verizon was conducting the final beta tests on some advanced signal equipment, they asked us to deploy it in one of our client facilities.  We ended up identifying problems that they had not anticipated.  This tight relationship has meant that we were one of the first Verizon customers in North America to deploy this particular piece of equipment in the field.

We consider our implementation and support process to be a critical distinguishing factor.  Our wireless signal runs fast, true, and, most importantly, secure in all of our client facilities with the kind of reliability America has come to expect from the number one wireless carrier nationally.

  • Posted Wednesday, July 6, 2016

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As Inmate Populations Increase, Technology Can Help Relieve Pressure on Parole/Probation

The Wall Street Journal wrote an article entitled “Changes in Sentencing Policy Raise Pressure on Probation Officers” on July 6, 2016 noting that there were two principal effects of recent moves on sentencing and correctional reform: higher parole and probation populations were taxing the existing infrastructure of supervised control outside of incarceration, and some officials were increasingly concerned about the potential for higher recidivism, consequently.

“The current push for shorter prison sentences is putting more work on the [probation] force, federal officials say, and raising concerns that critical details might be missed that could prevent relapses among a high-risk population …

“Since 2010, 14,100 people have been freed early because of changes in sentencing law and policies, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the federal probation case load has increased 7% since 2010.  In the same period, the budget of the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services Office rose 0.5% to $902 million.”

Even so, the percentage of federal felons who had their probation revoked dropped 2% to 27% in 2015 vs. 2010.  This is due in part to changes in risk assessment methodologies, taking into account a broader set of metrics, more prevalent in their application in the federal system.  It may also be due to less active supervision.

“But probation officials say the drop is due chiefly to the fact that there are fewer officers, relative to the number of ex-inmates, to spot violations, so more offenders remain free.”

The flipside of this problem is that underfunded state probation and parole systems may contribute to prison overcrowding, even as there is growing bipartisan pressure to reduce the size of the population behind bars.

The Council for State Government’s Justice Center released a report, highlighted in this article on testimony from CSG staff in Arkansas.

“From 2009 to 2015, the number of parole violators being sentenced to prison in ADC [Arkansas Department of Corrections] facilities increased by nearly 137 percent – making parole and probation violators nearly half of all admissions to Arkansas prisons.

“Researchers suggest much of the parole violations have to do with the caseloads parole and probation officers are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.  Data presented showed on average, ACC [Arkansas Community Corrections] caseworkers have as many as 120 individuals to look after – compared to data from North Carolina where the caseload is nearly half.”

Much depends on jurisdictional context.  But, in both cases, technology can help.

Technology like the services American Prison Data Systems, PBC offers can help in several ways.

One, by providing a mobile device connected to a wireless network, the parole or probation agency can monitor their charges remotely, potentially expanding the scale at which an individual officer can operate efficiently, while intervening less directly and obtrusively in the life of the former offender.

Two, in using the educational and rehabilitative content and services, the former offender can continue the progress they made while incarcerated (or, as an alternative to incarceration).

Three, the behavioral data that the service generates about the way in which the parolee or probationer is using the American Prison Data Systems, PBC service can help to update risk assessment engines in real-time, with data that is agnostic to the individual’s race, zip code, prior criminal history, or other charged inputs.

  • Posted Friday, June 24, 2016

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American Prison Data Systems Applauds Obama Admin's Latest Programs for Prisoners

The Obama administration took a big step today – announcing more than 8 specific education and jobs programs designed to make it easier for the more than 90% of incarcerated people who will one day return to their communities. American Prison Data Systems is committed to changing corrections for good, and as such, applauds the Obama administration’s continued efforts to reform our criminal justice system and reduce barriers facing justice-involved individuals to successful reentry.

Here’s a rundown of the programs the Administration announced today. Read more about each program on the White House’s website:

  • Second Chance Pell Pilot Program
  • Reentry Demonstration Project for Young Adults
  • Training to Work
  • Linking to Employment Activities Pre-Release
  • Pathways to Justice
  • Permanent Supportive Housing through Pay for Success
  • Toolkit for Housing Reentry Programs
  • Protecting the Children of Incarcerated Parents

These announcements comes just a few weeks after the White House unveiled the Fair Chance Education Pledge, in which more than two dozen institutions of higher learning pledged to reduce barriers for formerly incarcerated people to get an education at their colleges and universities.

We see it in our daily work at APDS – the time to insure an inmate has a successful reentry into the modern world starts during their time as incarcerated. That’s why each inmate enrolled in an APDS tablet program receives a customized learning plan to address educational and life skills needs. And many APDS tablet programs include employment training and college programming like the programming outlined in the Obama administration’s latest announcements.

College education, vocational training, connections to reentry support, connections to family and hope – that’s what APDS is all about, and that’s what we see in these announcements from the Obama administration.
Learn more about American Prison Data Systems and our mission to change corrections for good here.

  • Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2016

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Blended Learning is Especially Important in Corrections

One of the most important concepts in education today is personalized learning. And for good reason: given what we know about the wide spectrum of student learning styles and needs that teachers must address, it is clear that a “one size fits all” approach is insufficient for any classroom. The result is almost always a lack of engagement from any student who requires something different.

Unfortunately, many educators who recognize the value of personalized learning struggle to actually make it happen. One reason is that it is a complex practice; in fact, it is actually the combination of many different practices. Another is that there is often a lack of the time and material resources that are required.

This is especially true in incarcerated settings, where access to resources is highly restricted, large groups can be difficult to manage, and students have often had their education interrupted for any number of reasons. To solve this problem, an increasing number of facilities are turning to technology and employing the blended learning model in their classrooms.

Blended learning, generally defined as the mixing of traditional teaching methods with digital devices and content, is ideal for supporting a personalized learning program. Providing access to digital content and services exponentially increases the amount of educational material that students can access, and personal digital devices allows students to work on something that is just right for them specifically.

This means that teachers can not only serve more students than before, but that they can serve all of those students more effectively, as well. It is a win for everyone: teachers, administrators, and, most importantly, students.

There is ample evidence of the link between blended learning and personalized learning; the Learning Accelerator recently published their Measurement Agenda for Blended Learning, and found that within the blended learning field of study:

“There are numerous studies that focus on the individual practices that make up personalization, so many that meta-analyses and syntheses, and even meta-meta-analyses, exist, all showing moderate to large effect sizes for these practices.”

It is clear that a blended learning solution is the best way for correctional facilities to enable their teachers to deliver personalized learning.

American Prison Data Systems is well-positioned to provide this solution, with a proven safe and secure platform that is specifically designed on the principle that every learner has unique needs. Through tablets and laptops, they provide access to a huge variety of content, covering not only academic subjects but also areas such as vocational training and mental health.

In addition, their proprietary features allow correctional facilities to upload and even create their own content.

  • Posted Thursday, June 16, 2016

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The Importance of Celebrating Father's Day in Prison

This Sunday across the United States, families everywhere will celebrate and recognize the importance of fathers.  Now imagine yours is behind bars, literally out of reach. This is the reality for over 2 million children in the United States, to whom Father’s Day often serves as a painful reminder of the limited role their parent can play in their life.

As the incarceration rate has exploded over the past three decades, so has the effect on children and families. New studies show that “fathers’ incarceration and family hardship, including housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children, are strongly related.”

Without strong authority figures and positive role models in their lives, many of these children inevitably face a number of adverse outcomes, including antisocial and violent behavior, mental health problems, school dropout, and unemployment.

These sad realities highlight the importance of Father’s Day in prison—an opportunity to re-solidify the bond between parent and child each year. And although it is a uniquely difficult time for many incarcerated fathers as they confront their limited role as caregivers, the day is celebrated nonetheless, and often in momentous fashion. Smiling children and mothers fill visitation rooms with colorful cards, gifts and shared activities. Check out heartwarming pictures from a Father’s Day celebration at San Quentin Prison in 2012!

Jessica, says goodbye to Abel, as she holds their five-year-old daughter Camila at San Quentin state prison Donte, who said he has one year left in prison, reads a book with his daughters Cieara and Nicole at San Quentin state prison

It is moments like these that we are reminded of how important maintaining these relationships are to the health and rehabilitation of both prisoners and the innocent families on the other side of incarceration. In fact, research proves that when offenders remain connected to their families, it not only helps their kids, but also protects the rest of us, reducing recidivism.

American Prison Data Systems agrees that family preservation is key to reducing recidivism and should be a priority in our correctional approach. APDS’ custom built communication platform, Connected Corrections, offers secure, monitored messaging between family members at no cost. In conjunction with in-person visitations, APDS technology services enhance inmate’s connection to the outside world, allowing for a smoother transition back into the community.

We wish every parent in prison a Happy Father’s Day, and hope that our services help better maintain the bond a father shares with his children!