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Books helped me get through a life sentence. Exploitative fees rob others of benefit.
Last year, West Virginia contracted with a company, Global Tel Link (GTL), to provide free tablets to prisoners. These kinds of initiatives are rapidly becoming more popular, as states grapple with the legacy of four decades of tough-on-crime policies and renewed public calls for more rehabilitative prisons.
And it sounds great. Until inmates realize the company charges users every time they use the tablets, including 25 cents a page for emails and 3 cents a minute to read e-books. By that calculation, most inmates would end up paying about $15 for each novel or autobiography they attempt to read. To people who have little to no money, that’s not a benefit. That’s exploitation. The only beneficiary, aside from Global Tel Link, is West Virginia, which receives 5% of the profits.
GTL isn’t alone in profiting off of prisoners. Exploitation of prisoners for profit is cropping up more and more across the criminal justice landscape.
JPay, which is owned by Securus Technologies, charges inmates to make calls, send emails and listen to music and audiobooks. In some states, Edovo (Education Over Obstacles) has charged inmates to rent tablets.
Many prisons now ban in-person visits, then allow companies to charge $12.99 or more for video calls. Prison phone calls can cost up to $3.99 a minute. Prison shoes fall apart within weeks, and replacements are only available from a special catalog. Only sweatshirts are provided for the winter. Meals are nutritionally insufficient and, over time, must be supplemented to maintain good health.
All these necessities — shoes, jackets, phone calls, canned tuna from the commissary — rack up fees well above the market rate on the outside. But they often aren’t paid for by prisoners, who have little or no means to earn income. They are paid primarily by families who are often among our poorest. This hidden tax drives already vulnerable communities deeper into poverty and hopelessness.
But a charge to read is especially egregious. The great resource in prison is time: the time to think and improve. The best way for prisoners to fill that time is to read. Reading opens up access to instruction across any subject. It teaches job skills. It reminds those left behind that a world exists beyond the cage.
I would know: It happened that way for me. At 18, I was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of parole. For two years, I was depressed and hopeless, with no purpose or goals. Then a fellow lifer introduced me to books. I started reading every day: history, self-help, newspapers, textbooks, biographies. Reading taught me not only could I make the world a better place, but how to make it a better place: by getting others to read, too.
He and I founded a weekly book club. We got our GEDs. Our Maryland prison didn’t offer a college degree program, so we researched and wrote a proposal that helped persuade them to start one.
We taught résumé writing and career guidance classes. We helped more than a hundred of our fellow inmates prepare for success in the world beyond the fence. We made dozens of life-long readers. We gave ourselves hope and purpose and the tools for success.
It never would have happened without free books. At one point, my family spent hundreds of dollars over just a few months answering my collect calls. But they didn’t have endless amounts of money to continue that, and I certainly didn’t have money. The idea of spending 3 cents a minute on a book was impossible. I didn’t have 3 cents.
You can’t imagine how life-changing it was to realize that my purpose was right there, free for the finding, between the covers of our prison library’s books.
We don’t have to give in to this sort of vulture capitalism. There are charities that provide free books and reading materials. American Prison Data Systems, where I work as the director of engagement, charges correctional systems, not inmates, for tablets. They provide a free online reading library for anyone using their devices, in addition to adaptive education programs.
In institutions where tablets are not yet an option, prisoners should simply get access to the books already in prison libraries, which are frequently restricted.
Each of those simple steps, though, ladder up to a large question: Will society value the potential of men and women behind bars? Over the past several decades, this country has become numb to an unimaginably bloated prison system. The only way we can get around the pain of knowing that 2.3 million people are behind bars today is by telling ourselves that people in prison deserve retribution. This is a dangerous line of thinking if we allow it to justify a prison system that terrorizes and traumatizes millions of people a year — who are disproportionately black, brown or low-income — without providing pathways to rehabilitation.
Being locked in a cage for years is sufficient retribution in itself. Everything else in prison should be about rehabilitation.
When prisoners have resources for growth and maturation, they return to society as better parents and family members, active contributors to their communities, and productive workers. Their loved ones are less likely to be drawn into the cycle of violence, their communities grow safer, our economy becomes stronger and they are far less likely to return to prison.
I was lucky. I made it out. I wrote books, with the fellow lifer I mentioned earlier, that proved our good intentions, and our sentences were reduced. If we hadn’t, the state of Maryland would likely have paid more than $3 million (about $44,000 a year at likely 35 more years each) to keep us locked up for our full terms. That’s just for the two of us. But instead, we’re free. We’re working. We’re running businesses. We’re paying taxes. We’re paying it forward and inspiring others.
There are not a thousand inmates in prison right now like us. There are not 10,000. There are hundreds of thousands. Imagine where we’d be if our society made a few basic investments — like covering the costs of books — for each of them. Imagine how much human potential we’re losing every day we fail to do so.
Tablets Offer Educational Opportunities In Prison, But Quality Varies
More and more incarcerated students are getting access to educational technology. These technologies offer access where education is limited, but not much is known about the quality of the programs.
Getting an education in prison can make all the difference for inmates, even reduce their chances of going back after they are released. But it is hard for prisons and jails to offer classes. They don’t have enough space or money, oftentimes. That is where tablets come in. Students behind bars can use tables to take online classes, do research, read e-books. There is a lot that new technology can’t fix, though, as NPR’s Jenny Gathright reports.
JENNY GATHRIGHT, BYLINE: There is virtually no classroom space at the D.C. Jail, and there’s not a lot of money to hire more teachers. But 31-year-old Keith Sweptson doesn’t need a traditional classroom.
KEITH SWEPTSON: Right here, I’ma (ph) show you…
GATHRIGHT: Sweptson is holding a tablet, the tool he’s been using to get his GED. Before he got to jail last year, he had a ninth-grade education.
SWEPTSON: I work tabs, so this – you know, you could tab a lot of things. See? They have Khan Academy.
GATHRIGHT: Sweptson pulls up a screen full of different tabs, like a Web browser. It’s how he saves his assignments and instructional videos.
SWEPTSON: And it gives you – it’s like a teacher online, just, like, on a chalkboard, like, right – it shows you examples and stuff like that.
GATHRIGHT: D.C.’s Department of Corrections is expanding its programs so more students here can use the tablets to take college courses, get their GEDs, learn English. Tablets don’t require much space. All you need are charging blocks and a few tutors who can offer students one-on-one help. They’re also relatively inexpensive to implement.
Quincy Booth, the head of the D.C. Department of Corrections, says many students here in D.C. like learning on the tablet because it gives them more control.
QUINCY BOOTH: The tablets allow people to learn in their own pace and in their own way, as well as it allows people to learn privately.
GATHRIGHT: But Booth knows that there are advantages to in-person instruction.
BOOTH: We know that tablets can’t be the be all, end all.
GATHRIGHT: That’s why local professors come and teach here, and the jail offers hands-on vocational training.
BOOTH: At the end of the day, you have to have personal touch, personal connection. So we have to have a mixture of offerings.
GATHRIGHT: But with limited space and limited resources, more and more prisons are offering online education. They’re partnering with schools like Ashland University, based in Ohio. They have programs in as many as 50 jails and prisons across the country, including here in D.C. It’s a highly scalable model. If you can deliver a class online to one student, why not hundreds or more?
MICHELLE TOLBERT: Because it is so scalable, it can quickly grow without really knowing whether or not it’s a high-quality education.
GATHRIGHT: Michelle Tolbert researches adult education at the think tank RTI International. She says correctional facilities need to be critical consumers when it comes to tablets. She says there hasn’t been enough research on the quality of the programs these tablets are providing. And plus, many of the vendors who supply the tablets aren’t primarily educational organizations.
TOLBERT: Most of them have a history of supplying other services and facilities, like music and videos and pay phones. And they see education as a new market and a new way to make money.
GATHRIGHT: In West Virginia, for example, a tablet company is charging inmates by the minute to read e-books. Tolbert says the tablets do have a lot of potential, though, because they can help incarcerated students have experiences that students on the outside might take for granted.
TOLBERT: Think about it. I mean, we all do our research online. If you don’t have access to online resources, it’s very hard to do a research report for a college classroom.
GATHRIGHT: And this is not a typical college classroom. New technology like tablets can’t solve problems inmates are having with their basic needs at the D.C. Jail. The D.C. Department of Health has cited the jail numerous times for problems like leaky roofs and walls, improper handling of food and a failure to maintain acceptable room temperatures. Booth told NPR the jail works to address issues as soon as they hear about them.
As for Sweptson, he says things in the jail changed for him after he got his tablet and got the chance to move to a specialized education unit.
SWEPTSON: Big difference – on the other units, it’s a lot of problems walking around.
GATHRIGHT: Sweptson says he’s less stressed here because when he’s bored, he can pick up his tablet and read a book or watch a TED talk. His studies have also gotten him thinking about the next steps in his education after he passes the final test he needs for his GED.
SWEPTSON: I never had college on my mind before I came here, but now it’s like it’s on my mind. Like, I really think I’d do good in college.
GATHRIGHT: After he’s sentenced, Sweptson will leave this jail and get sent to a federal prison. Whether he has access to college and what form that access takes depends on the federal institution.
Jenny Gathright, NPR News, Washington.
Investing in the Incarcerated
The team at APDS believes that just because someone is incarcerated does not mean that they have to stop learning. Their team consists of innovation experts who are dedicated to corrections reform. The United States spends $70 billion a year on corrections, which is more than most of the other countries in the world. Despite this, APDS feels corrections is not doing enough to lead these people to better lives. There are also 50K incidents of prison violence a year, which is far too large of a number.
It has been proven that education, rehabilitation, and reentry systems do indeed work. This is where APDS comes in: they feel they can help these issues by providing incarcerated learners with the digital tools that they need to succeed. APDS puts correction officers and inmates at the center of their work. Their concerns are heard, and they will be given the tools they need to reach their goals. APDS strives to empower and rehabilitate their users, as opposed to exploiting and recriminalizing them. While their competitors charge inmates fees, often large ones, to use their services, APDS does not pass on costs to their end users as the goal is to help them, not overcharge them.
Segun Olowofela is the VP of Finance & Administration at APDS. He explained how the main focus of this innovation is to be able to educate inmates in correctional facilities all throughout the country. Their impact has aided in improving learning outcomes, inspiring behavior change, and reducing prison violence. Segun believes that education is key in creating a better life; simply because someone is in prison does not mean they cannot further their education in hopes of improving their situation. Although prison is a punishment, it is also an opportunity for inmates to improve their lives. Education is especially important in prisons in order to help reduce the recidivism rate. This education will facilitate rehabilitation, job training, and re-entry programs in order to help inmates create better lives for themselves.
APDS Corporation has positively affected the corrections system with the software and technology they have introduced. Generally, around 72% of inmates end up back in prison within three years of being released. The customized software that the individuals receive has promoted learning, resulted in positive behavioral change, and decreased prison violence. Here are some quotes from inmates in Montgomery who experienced just how powerful this program is.
“At the end of the day you got to learn from your mistakes, and that’s what I did. So when I get out there I’ll actually stick to my mindset, stick to my goals, and try to make it in life. I’ve got a bright future ahead.” -CJ, Montgomery
“This was one of the programs I was talking about, the TED talk, how failure leads to success. ‘Listen to shame.’ It gives you a lot of insight on how not to be afraid of certain things.” -Alhaji, Montgomery
At the Arkansas Correctional School, those who had access to the tablets had a 57% increase in GED pass rates as opposed to those who didn’t use the tablets. Overall, all of these changes positively affect a flawed system by showing inmates that they are capable.
ADPS’ success as a business is centered around their key innovation, digital technology. ADPS provides great value for their stakeholders. They seek to meet or exceed customer expectations by providing well-designed and customized instruction to reduce recidivism and to help people rebuild their lives and give back to their communities. ADPS provides tablets and curriculum that offer a cost-effective and sustainable way to provide education that can change lives. The goal with such education is to allow the inmates to be able to use this education to gain employment in the outside world and hopefully reduce the chances of them returning to prison (Field). In terms of cost efficiency, the tablets ADPS uses provides a higher value for a lower cost compared to hiring a teacher. Tablets can be provided to facilities at a very low cost and inmates pay no fees for the content. By providing educational technology, facilities benefit from its low costs and positive return on investment, and society benefits from a more educated populace and a lower recidivism rate.
APDS Corporation has positively impacted our society by educating and training inmates through the technology and software they provide. Those who are incarcerated learn how to turn their mistakes into a different future than they might’ve originally had for themselves. Through the personalization that the software offers, inmates are taught how to face issues that they struggle with mentally.
The program has significantly cut costs for prison administrators which affects society positively because less taxpayer dollars are used towards the prison system. Their technological services have also resulted in better inmate outcomes.
Tablets that DON’T Exploit the User
Nexus Point Consulting, LLC
You might have read about it. Right before Thanksgiving, the internet exploded over a report of incarcerated individuals being charged by the minute to read material that is FREE through Project Gutenberg. Specifically, in West Virginia, the Department of Corrections provides “free” tablets to incarcerated individuals. However, “FREE” actually comes at a cost…users have to pay $0.05 per minute to read books, listen to music or play games. They pay $0.25 per minute for video visitations, $0.25 per written message, and $0.50 to send a photo with a message.
Putting this into perspective, I thought about how I used to limit my children’s text messaging because of the cost. When I was finally able to move to “unlimited text and data”, I was ecstatic. The difference, though, is that I am earning way more than the prison wage in West Virginia, which is between $0.04 and $0.58 per hour. According to the report, a tablet user in a West Virginia correctional facility would have to work four hours to listen to a four-minute song.
“Who cares? They are prisoners!” Okay, I get that. I see how some people might think that incarcerated individuals don’t deserve to have tablets, or listen to music, or read books, or visit with their loved ones. I see how some people might think that incarcerated individuals should have to pay to do these things. I have been a victim of crime. I wanted the perpetrator to be punished. I get it.
But I also know that 95% of those who are incarcerated are released to their communities at some point. They need to be rehabilitated. They need to return to their communities with skills that enable them to be gainfully employed so they can support themselves and their families. They need to be able to remain connected to their families and other support systems while they are incarcerated so they have a better chance at success when they return to their communities. And, typically, the incarcerated individuals aren’t the ones footing the bill for these tablet charges…their families are.
As President of the Executive Board of the Correctional Education Association, I was contacted about this issue and asked if I had an opinion. I wasn’t able to speak on behalf of the organization, because it hasn’t taken an official stand. However, I definitely have an opinion. It’s one thing to charge a user for a transaction. We all deal with this. If I go to an ATM to withdraw money, I might have to pay a fee if it isn’t part of my bank’s network. But I have a choice to avoid entities that charge me to make a transaction. Those who are incarcerated are at the mercy of the jurisdiction incarcerating them. If the jurisdiction chooses a provider such as GTL (Glogal Tel Link), as West Virginia has done, the users are at the mercy of the provider.
Is there a solution? Of course there is. American Prison Data Systems (APDS) is a public benefits corporation (PBC) with the tag-line, “Changing Corrections for Good.” APDS provides rehabilitative programming at NO COST to the user. Individuals using APDS tablets can access education, job training and reentry programming. They don’t have to pay to read books from Project Gutenberg. Their devices include access to the National Corrections Library which includes current titles along with Project Gutenberg titles…at no cost to the user. APDS devices are used by jurisdictions who provide post-secondary college programs through the Pell ESI program. The devices are used by jurisdictions providing education programming leading to a high school credential. Some jurisdictions provide job training courses and reentry preparation using the devices. ALL of this is provided at NO COST to the user or his family. No exploitation. APDS is about rehabilitating individuals who are incarcerated so they can return to their communities and remain law-abiding citizens.
This isn’t the first time I have written about APDS. When I was the Director of Juvenile Education for the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC), we used APDS tablets in the school at the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility. The impact was incredibly positive…so positive that I accepted a consulting contract with APDS when I retired from IDOC. I believe in the mission of APDS, and I can attest that they truly want to “Change Corrections for Good.” There is absolutely no reason to exploit individuals who are incarcerated. There is no reason to exploit their families. Rehabilitative programming can be provided at no cost to the users. Jurisdictions need to dig deep and realize that every dollar they spend on educating individuals who are incarcerated results in a savings of five dollars in the costs of continued incarceration and recidivism.
American Prison Data Systems. Changing Corrections for Good.
In DC, Teachers Run the Jail. It’s Turning Inmates Into Students.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jerard Briscoe is away at school. Or at least, that’s what he tells his kids.
It’s a plausible story. He studies for GED math exams. He reads e-books and takes courses using a tablet computer. He even wears a uniform: an orange jumpsuit and white Velcro sneakers.
“If you’re at college, you can’t go home everyday anyway. I just put my mindset like I’m really at school,” he says. “So when I tell my kids that, I’m lying a little bit, but I’m not really lying, because I am at school.”
He thinks for a beat.
That idea is spreading through the corridors at the D.C. Central Detention Facility, slipping past security checkpoints and into cells where incarcerated residents watch Khan Academy videos and craft their resumes. It’s a big shift from just a few years ago, when inmates say they passed long days with little to do but play cards and pick fights.
That was before Amy Lopez showed up. In 2017, the petite Texan arrived at the jail with an armada of plans and the energy to launch them. She invited college professors to teach for-credit classes inside, in person. She purchased tablets to offer short-term learning opportunities to transient inmates. And she created a residential learning bloc named for the phoenix, the mythical bird who rises from its ashes to have a second chance at life.
“Every single person I talk to—staff members or incarcerated students—will say it was a game-changer when she arrived,” says Marc M. Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University. “I’ve never seen an administration, a staff, an agency so supportive of programming for its incarcerated residents. I think they’re a model of what corrections officials around the country should be.”
To Lopez, a former public school teacher, the radical changes make perfect sense. Her facility houses 1,800 people a day who have gaps in their schooling and who may one day be back out in the world.
As Lopez easily navigates the maze of cinder block hallways and hollers code numbers to an unseen elevator operator, she muses aloud in her Lone Star drawl: “What if you treated everyone as if this were an academic campus?”
Lopez is now working toward a doctorate in developmental education, but as an undergrad, she majored in theater. That stage training is surprisingly relevant, she says: “I use it every day.”
She taught drama, English, reading, art and speech in Texas public schools before moving into administration as an assistant principal, and later a principal. Seeking something new, she switched to prison education, becoming principal at a juvenile detention center that sometimes housed boys as young as 10.
She didn’t get much training before making the shift.
“That probably made me incredibly good at my job,” she says. “Because I didn’t know any better, I ran it like a regular school. We had positive interventions and supports. … Everything improved. Serious incidents went down to nothing.”
Her subsequent work with incarcerated kids and adults didn’t go unnoticed. When the Obama administration sought to reduce recidivism by building a school district within the federal prison system, Lopez got a call.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates asked her to leave Texas for D.C. to become the first superintendent of a new Bureau of Prisons school district. The plan was to create personalized education plans for each inmate. A pilot program would test the use of tablets in combining online education with classroom teaching in a prison setting.
Lopez’s new gig, chief education administrator for the federal BOP, was announced in November 2016.
“I was the only one of those they ever had,” she says, ruefully. “The hot minute that I was there.”
After Donald Trump began his presidency, Lopez lasted five months.
“It’s terrible to be famous for being fired,” Lopez says. “I went out with Sally Yates; I’d go out with Sally Yates any day of the week.”
She wasn’t unemployed for long. D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth, himself a former teacher, scooped her up. Together, they crafted her a new position: deputy director of college and career readiness and professional development. If the inmates across the whole federal system couldn’t benefit from her ideas, at least those in the nation’s capital might.
It didn’t take long for guards and administrators to notice the effects her programs were having on inmates, who Lopez calls residents.
“It’s awakening the giant in them,” says correctional officer Temesghen Andemichael. “Education is the key to changing their circumstances, they believe in that.”
It turns out, people in jail love TED Talks.
The videos are inspiring, informative and—perhaps most importantly—available any time on the tablets they can borrow for hours on end.
It’s loud on the Phoenix Unit, the special learning wing where these residents live and test educational pilot programs. Large fans whirr constantly overhead. Two floors of numbered cells surround open hallways just wide enough for a row of picnic tables. Spanish-speakers cluster around one, studying English. At another, a man tackles math problems with a calculator.
The tablet computers allow inmates to drown out the din. They slip on specially designed headphones and immerse themselves in recorded lectures and digital texts, with the occasional break to listen to music from preapproved radio stations.
“It kind of takes you away from this place sometimes,” Briscoe says.
Putting this type of tech tool in a prison or jail can be a hard sell to corrections officials, though.
“They think something bad is going to happen,” Lopez says. “It takes time to build enough relationship capacity to know I wasn’t going to do something crazy.”
But within her first few months at the D.C. jail, she got support to bring in the tablets. At first, the computers primarily offered online college courses from Ashland University.
“I went through and found people who already had a high school diploma or GED to fill out their FAFSAs,” Lopez says, referring to the federal forms to apply for financial aid. “I didn’t have a team at the time. I went from cell to cell recruiting, did all the paperwork.”
Then, Lopez got more programing for the tablets from American Prison Data Systems, a for-profit company that charges facilities, not inmates or their families, for the tools. The Samsung devices are wrapped in thick cases and loaded with education software selected to serve residents’ needs.
The computers can’t access the internet, per jail rules, but they’ve got videos and a library of books that inmates can read without having to wait weeks for their families to send them Amazon paperbacks. Favorites, residents say, include self-help books, stories about overcoming hardship and works by Malcolm Gladwell.
The tablets also come with courses that residents can take to pursue their own educational goals at their own speed. As a group, incarcerated people have less education than people on the outside, but their levels of degree attainment vary.
That makes a corrections facility like a one-room schoolhouse full of students who have different needs. With the tablets, ESL students can take classes from a company called Voxy to learn practical English at the same time that their unit mates take online college courses from Ashland.
Among the most popular tablet programs here are entrepreneurship and career readiness classes, and residents muse about their business plans for food trucks and construction companies and nonprofits designed to help fellow former prisoners.
Incarcerated people like entrepreneurial education in part because they know it’s hard to find work with a criminal record, says Chris Wilson, director of engagement for APDS and author of “The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose.”
“We have this stigma of being convicted of a crime,” he says. “Everyone wants to be their own boss.”
Residents have gotten creative with the tools. Russell Gaskins, known throughout the jail as Rock, has been learning Spanish from his five-year-old daughter. He wanted to teach her something in return.
“She has a tablet. So what we’ve been doing is downloading the same books. And we’ve been teaching each other, having conversations about the books; she’s learning how to read,” Gaskins says. “Having the tablet, having the same books, we can look at the same pictures. I’m still intimate in her life without being there.”
In a prison, inmates can struggle to find enough stimuli to fill their days—and years. In a jail, the challenge is to snatch fleeting chances to meaningfully change their lives.
At the D.C. jail, some residents are there to serve short misdemeanor sentences. Others are awaiting trial for more serious charges. Still others have been sentenced and may be transferred at any time to a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility hundreds of miles away. Lengths of stay range from less than a week to several years.
“It’s a limbo land, and unfortunately it’s a limbo land they’re really thriving in,” Lopez says. “There are days we go to hand out a tablet and they’ve been picked up in the middle of the night by U.S. marshals and taken off. We don’t have any warning. They’re sometimes pleading with a lawyer to ask a judge, ‘Can I stay for the end of a semester?’”
This disruption can be detrimental to earning credentials. Yet some residents say their time in jail is the first occasion they’ve had to really focus on schoolwork. Inside, they don’t have to worry about the gun violence, hunger and hustling that marked their lives on the outside.
“Even if you don’t finish and you happen to be getting transferred, say to the BOP, your mind is still on what you were trying to accomplish here, too. So this really, really do help us,” says James Johnson, a Phoenix Unit resident. “Even if I get transferred today or tomorrow, my mindset is going to be on trying to find something else to do, positive, some type of educational program. Because you ain’t going to get this everywhere.”
Lopez advises inmates who are transferring to prison elsewhere to immediately ask in their new facility, “What’s available to me?”
Despite the transience in their jail, Lopez and Booth have complemented the tablet program with traditional, for-credit college courses taught in person by Georgetown professors. Faculty bring in Georgetown students who live on campus to study alongside their incarcerated classmates. At the D.C. jail, the university offers the country’s first co-ed class for people in the system.
The welcome Howard has experienced in the facility in D.C.’s southeast corner contrasts sharply with the attitude his colleagues encounter in other parts of the country, where there’s a sense, he says, that incarcerated residents are “simply to be warehoused, held in cages, and they’re not deserving of any opportunities.”
“We feel very much wanted, partners on the same team,” he says. “That’s very unusual.”
Howard has lost students mid-semester. This week, one of the few women in the Georgetown program was sentenced to what will likely be five years in federal prison. Almost simultaneously, another student was released unexpectedly.
“We had testified on his behalf at his sentencing hearing. The judge said what he was doing in our program was so good, he would support his release,” Howard says. “On Monday, I testified. He was released 15 minutes later. On Tuesday, he was in our Georgetown class” on campus.
Among the Georgetown inmate-students is Joel Castón. He’s been in the D.C. jail for three years, waiting for a judge to revisit the life sentence he received as a teenager, when he was convicted of murder (a verdict he has appealed). He’s written a book about investing and personal finance, and he studies Mandarin in his free time. Lopez jokes that she assumes she’ll be working for him some day.
Castón uses a tablet to study other topics, like business soft skills. He’s been in the system so long that the tool has offered him otherwise rare encounters with modern technology.
“The tablet has become my companion,” he says. “Just think about the leisure of not spending idle time inside a room—you can utilize that time to actually study something of substance. That’s fabulous. Now you can actually maximize this experience.”
On weekends, with her pet greyhound in the back seat, Lopez drives her blue coupe all over the D.C. area, to battlefields and museums and even way up north to see Niagara Falls.
She savors the liberty to learn that she hopes the jail’s tablets offer residents, albeit on a small scale. The freedom to read a book when they choose. To move forward in a class at their own pace.
Riding in that car on the way to a correctional officers meeting, Lopez mentions she’s never been the victim of a crime. Still, she can’t help but wonder how much punishment is enough to atone for the acts that incarcerated people are convicted of committing.
“What does more time do?” she asks.
In the long term, Lopez wants to change Americans’ attitudes toward students like hers, mostly men of color whom she views primarily as “really enthusiastic adult learners.”
“I don’t look up their offenses,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
More concretely, Lopez wants to figure out how effective her programs are, analyzing, for example, whether blended learning is more helpful than tablet-based study alone. And she wants to set clearer benchmarks for each student. She hopes to change their trajectories after they’re released, making sure the schoolwork they do in jail ultimately helps them get better jobs that pay living wages.
A watershed RAND evaluation of correctional education programs published in 2013 found that inmates who participate in such programs have 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who don’t. Yet it may be difficult to measure recidivism among Lopez’s students, who can be sent all over the country to carry out their sentences.
Even so, she and her colleagues are working to prove the program’s worth. The tablet system allows jail educators to track the progress that individual inmates are making in their skills and classes. APDS is collecting data from multiple facilities where its tablets are used to assess what’s working. In one jurisdiction, the company’s program helped increase GED pass rates by 57 percent, says Arti Finn, APDS co-founder.
Anecdotal evidence looks promising so far.
“We were not even a month into our pilot program when Director Booth and I had a meeting, and he told me there’s been a culture shift already. He’d never seen it before,” says Howard, the Georgetown professor. “He would hear people discussing what they’d learned in class, debating philosophy. He overheard a phone call where someone said, ‘Mom, can you believe I’m in a Georgetown class?’ with such pride.”
In addition to the hopes Lopez has for her students, they have goals of their own. Briscoe wants to earn his GED, study information technology through Ashland University and help his three daughters and two sons with their homework.
But he doesn’t think only of himself. He advocates on behalf of his peers who have less access to resources than he has on the Phoenix Unit. It would reduce rates of violence, he says, if more residents had more opportunities to study.
He also thinks it would prepare them not only to reenter the outside world, but to succeed there.
“A lot of people come to jail and just leave with nothing. They don’t know nothing but what they knew before they came,” he says. “If you had something to go out there and look forward to, there’s less chance you’ll be turned back.”
American Prison Data Systems Helps Inmates Pursue Success
Prison is a punishment, but it can also be an opportunity for inmates to improve their lives, and for prisons to improve the communities they serve. Inmates who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to recidivate, according to RAND. By providing services that help turn convicts into productive members of society, prisons can help rehabilitate troubled lives, mend broken families, and save taxpayers money.
None of this is new information to corrections executives, but until recently, it’s been hard — if not impossible — to deliver effective rehabilitation services.
APDS was founded in 2012 and incorporated as a public benefit corporation in 2013. Before that, no one offered mobile-based programming for inmates.
“Most prisons were still using print media,” says Mott Middleton, chief revenue officer for APDS. “Some jurisdictions had small computer labs with old computers, and they would cycle inmates through, but that’s difficult when certain individuals can’t be mixed. And these were static programs, not rich in data mining or data integration. We are able to leverage online resources and proprietary algorithms to deliver personalized content and adaptive learning models.”
The APDS system starts by running users through a series of assessments that scientifically evaluate their education level, risks and needs. “We’re looking for things like criminogenic thinking and general behavior indicators, so we’re getting them into the right programming,” Middleton explains. “For instance, one person might need more anger management, another might need socialization skills, and another might just need pure literacy.”
That information feeds back into APDS’ custom data portal, which allows the prison or jurisdiction to see, down to a granular level, how individuals and groups are performing.
The goal is for each inmate to receive at least five hours of daily programming. Some prisons purchase a limited number of tablets that inmates can use in a designated programming area. However, most prisons opt for a one-to-one model. This ensures each inmate gets their five hours and lets prisons incentivize participation.
“Throughout the day, inmates use their tablet for job training and rehabilitation services,” says Middleton. “At the end of the day, based on their engagement and behavior, incentive portals unlock. If they’ve hit their programming milestones, they can watch a movie or listen to an Audible audiobook.”
More than 700,000 convicted criminals are released from federal and state prisons each year, according to RAND, and 40 percent of them return within three years. APDS wants to change those numbers. “People come into the system with a set of skills. If we can help them acquire a different set of skills prerelease, then they’ve got a different path post-release, and that impacts recidivism.”
Inmates can even search and apply for jobs via a secure, proprietary app called National Corrections Work. It also helps them create resumes, inventory their interests and view local job listings. “We’re aligning job skills to the job market and getting them prepared for those jobs. Then, depending on their jurisdiction and where they are in their programming, the application will let them apply for jobs and secure employment prerelease, so that on day one, walking out of the facility, they know what they’re supposed to be doing. They’ve got a purpose.”
Middleton says APDS also provides value to prisons, via the data portal and by helping meet legislative compliance rules. For example, in New York City, prisons are mandated to provide five hours of programming per day, and there’s not enough classroom space or instructors to do that in person.
“Core to who we are as a public benefits company, we pride ourselves on delivering a non-exploitative service. We don’t charge inmates’ friends or families for the service. The jurisdictions provide the service. So, we’re not creating an environment of haves and have-nots. We’re very passionate about that last statement. We receive letters from incarcerated individuals on a daily basis, and it’s the same theme: ‘Thank you for believing in us. Thank you for giving me a tool to better myself. Thank you for giving me a second chance.’”
Incarcerated learners who use APDS are twice as likely to pass the GED as nonusers, and reentry plan completion rates have increased by 70 percent for APDS users. “We’ve seen a numbered increase in GED attainment,” adds Middleton. “We’re moving people through postsecondary education and helping them get BA degrees. Those are things they never thought they’d be able to do. We also have anecdotal evidence from facilities about behavior improvements.”
Corrections executives understand the value of rehabilitative services, but given the risks associated with incarceration, security has to be the top priority. APDS has taken steps to prevent both digital and physical threats.
With a standard tablet, physical security risks might include the weaponization of charging cords or glass shards, but all APDS tablets are protected by 810G military-grade ruggedized cases designed specifically to prevent inmates from tampering with, accessing or damaging the tablet. And when tablets aren’t in use, they’re housed in charge carts located in a secure, facility-designated location.
The digital security is much more complicated and robust. Wrapped around all the programming and reentry resources is APDS’ proprietary security system with 24/7 live agent monitoring. “With our solution, incarcerated users can only access what we let them access,” says Middleton. “They don’t have freedom to surf the web. They’re not accessing Facebook. It’s not a phone application. This is pure programming. We control access starting with the device itself and continue through the actual connectivity side, so inmates cannot break outside of our program.”
For device-level security, APDS leverages Samsung Knox, a defense-grade security platform that’s built into all Samsung smartphones and tablets. APDS also uses Knox Configure to customize the tablets, lock down settings on the devices, download approved whitelist apps, remove unapproved apps and ensure that the devices only connect to the secure APDS network.
“We use Samsung Knox for its unparalleled customizability and security,” says Middleton. “It allows us to quickly configure and deploy devices while providing a perfect record on security. We would not have had the success we’ve had without Samsung — not just because of the technology, but because of the partnership. When we are looking at new adaptations or unique deployment models, we can reach out for help with problem-solving and trouble-shooting. The technical consulting, the free exchange of information, the heads up around device changes — all of that helps us make our solution more effective and more secure.”
The APDS network has “no vulnerability,” according to white-hat hacking firm Coalfire technologies, and after more than 9 million hours of inmate usage, there have been no digital or physical threats.
But there has been plenty of progress. Today, APDS provides services to more than 66 facilities across 17 states. Last year, 11,000 incarcerated learners used the system. For Middleton and her colleagues, that’s extremely rewarding. “We think we’re changing the world, one inmate at a time.”
Top 10 Ideas That Show Business Roundtable CEOs How To Create Value For All Stakeholders
We are in the process of putting into practice a new social contract between business and society. The most recent evidence is the Business Roundtable’s August announcement that 181 CEOs of America’s largest companies were committed “to lead for the benefit of all stakeholders.”
As I wrote with my fellow co-founders of the B Corp movement: “While it is appropriate to note, even celebrate, the Business Roundtable’s announcement as a sign of an accelerating culture shift, it is important to recognize that the people who are demanding this shift are demanding action.” More than 30 CEOs from B Corps like Amalgamated Bank, Lemonade and Patagonia took out an ad in the August 25, 2019, Sunday edition of The New York Times to express their eagerness to help the Business Roundtable CEOs turn their bold words into concrete actions.
Many of the businesses who signed the open letter to Business Roundtable CEOs are also on the recently released annual Best For The World list, created by B Lab, the nonprofit behind the B Corp movement, which honors the B Corps achieving the most positive impact, as well as those making the largest measurable improvements to their positive impact on people and planet each and every year. These 2019 Best For The World honorees shine a path for the Business Roundtable (BRT) to follow in achieving each of its five newly announced commitments:
BRT Commitment No. 1: “Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.”
BRT Commitment No. 2: “Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.”
BRT Commitment No. 3: “Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.”
BRT Commitment No. 4: “Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.”
BRT Commitment No. 5: “Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.”
In their response to the Business Roundtable announcement, the Council of Institutional Investors worries that stakeholder governance creates a situation in which “accountability to everyone means accountability to no one,” creating “hiding places for poor management.” The existence of more than 10,000 successful B Corporations and benefit corporations who have already adopted stakeholder governance and are delivering value to their shareholders and to their customers, employees, suppliers, and communities, while preserving the natural systems on which all life depends, is evidence that this understandable concern is not consistent with the facts on the ground.
The shift from shareholder primacy to stakeholder capitalism is a natural evolution. Evolution happens through positive mutations. B Corps, especially Best For The World honorees, are the kinds of positive mutations that will outcompete in a marketplace that increasingly values an authentic commitment to purpose. The purpose of business is to strive to be best for the world. These businesses show us the way to turn bold words about purpose into concrete actions that create value for all stakeholders, including shareholders.
Let’s follow these leaders down to the path and make real change happen. Let’s get to work.
Expand college in-prison programs – then give participants time off their sentences
Over the past four decades, the United States doubled down on a “tough on crime” philosophy. It worked. We raced ahead as the world’s leader in incarceration, even as violent crime declined. We doled out life sentences to one out of every 2,000 people. Then, in 1994, President Clinton banned the use of federal Pell grants to fund higher education for people in prison, forcing the vast majority of prison higher education programs to close.Eighty-three percent of people released from prison are rearrested within a decade.
Finally, the conversation is changing. A bipartisan cadre of governors and congressional representatives are advocating for more forgiving, rehabilitative prison policies. The Trump administration is working to roll back Clinton’s zero-tolerance crime bill by expanding President Obama’s “Second Chance Pell” experiment, which funds college courses in a select few prisons.
It’s long overdue. Second Chance Pell currently funds college for only 12,000 inmates a year — or 0.5 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated people. Expanding the program to reach more of the estimated 463,000 Pell-eligible people behind bars could be transformative.
As the debate over whether to lift Clinton’s Pell ban altogether generates renewed attention in Congress, though, we must remember that education alone will not undo the full damage of the tough-on-crime era. But, through a minor policy shift, states can leverage the swell of support for prison education to counteract lengthy sentencing practices — ensuring the expansion of Second Chance Pell also shrinks the overall prison population.
So-called “earned time credit,” which gives students who participate in educational programs time off of their sentences, is taking hold in a growing number of states. Earned time credit policies incentivize incarcerated learners to participate in educational programming, ensuring more of the 95 percent of prisoners who will eventually reenter society do so with the backing of education, while also turning the tide on mass incarceration and potentially saving taxpayers money through reduced recidivism costs. Such policies cost nothing to implement, and they signal a state’s recognition that vengefully long sentences do nothing to help perpetrators, victims, or society at large.
Earned time credit has the dual effect of reducing costs and improving outcomes, shortening students’ time behind bars while harnessing the power of education to make it less likely that they will reoffend after release. In states such as Washington and Oregon, these policies have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.
These efforts are supported by a strong evidence base: a 2013 meta-analysis of correctional education programs found that education reduces the likelihood of recidivism, and increases post-release job placement, by about 13 percent. For every dollar spent on correctional education, researchers estimate that states save five dollars on reincarceration costs. And tying education to early release amplifies these benefits even further, allowing students to begin contributing to the outside world sooner.
Sentence lengths have ballooned over the past few decades, driving the mass incarceration crisis. To counter the systemic damage of four decades of retributive criminal justice, we have to give incarcerated learners more than degrees — we have to give more of them a chance to apply what they have learned to life on the outside.
Expanding earned time credit programs, and other opportunities for accelerated release, also hold potential to ignite a broader conversation on how sentencing practices can recognize human potential for rehabilitation. Students who reenter society early with the support of high-quality education, equipped to succeed and to advocate for themselves, can begin to take down the myth that long sentences are necessary for public safety.
Skeptics question whether incarcerated learners should have access to free education, when there never seems to be enough to go around for even “rule followers.” But, one of the most important ways we can ensure the government can invest in programs that serve people on the outside, such as Pell, is to finally tackle the inconceivable amount of money we spend locking people up.
Prison education is an investment that pays off many times over, as incarcerated students discover their untapped potential, leave prison ready to contribute meaningfully to society, and build lives that keep them from winding up back behind bars. If we can lower prison spending, we can create a bigger pie that will better serve all students.
Most importantly, it’s a mistake to mark people in prison as categorically unworthy. Over the past several years, I have worked with incarcerated learners across the country; their stories are often heartbreaking, but their grit, dedication and thirst for opportunity are unparalleled. Many have spent their lives navigating the social injustices that make some far more likely to wind up behind bars than others, and are now saddled with such lengthy sentences that they worry they will never have the chance to do more.
We’re writing off an unacceptable amount of human potential if we define 2.2 million people by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
Arti Finn is the co-founder of American Prison Data Systems, a public benefits corporation working to promote free and ethical education options for incarcerated learners.
First Step Act
First Step: Using Evidenced-based, Individualized Programming to Improve Outcomes for Returning Citizens
As President Trump signed The First Step Act, we celebrate this noteworthy bipartisan triumph. We hope this Act marks the first of many steps to overhaul our criminal justice system.
Though the passage calls for celebration, we know reintegrating former inmates into society takes more than a single act of legislation. It calls for high-quality programming so that returning citizens can become productive, self-reliant, law-abiding members of society, capable of supporting themselves and their families. As such, the Bureau of Prisons urgently needs to take additional steps to channel resources and changes in policy and practice around the country, addressing everything from gaps in education and mental health care to basic access to essential technology. And, Congress needs to fully fund this effort.
At APDS, we have been focusing on rehabilitation in the form of evidenced-based, individualized education, job training, and reentry programming. In addition, we have provided staff training resources to support this approach. The states and counties where we work are already seeing gains.
Since our founding, APDS has made an unprecedented effort to improve security, education efficiency, and curriculum access for inmates and correctional staff alike. And, we do so without charging the inmate or their families.
We look forward to working with correctional systems at the federal, state, and county levels to leverage our software and technology to deliver high-quality, data driven, individualized programming to all incarcerated learners and returning citizens. Working together, a full-scale transformation of the system becomes possible.
Program gives inmates tablets to help re-integrate into society
Fox 13 News
A new pilot program is helping Utah inmates prepare for re-entry into society. The tech-assisted, focused re-entry program has 225 new tablets. Each cost $500, and come pre-loaded with educational materials, individualized treatment plans, housing information, employment options and more. The network they use is monitored, with no access to WiFi. All communication is monitored.
Can Tablets Help Educate Prisoners — and keep them from returning to Jail?
APDS aims to help people behind bars get an education by supplying them with a platform for receiving appropriate curriculum. The idea is to supplement whatever curriculum is provided officially by giving prisoners tablets…
Jail Tech: Phones, tablets, and Software Behind Bars
Technology has solved a number of important social issues that affect humanity. Education has become democratized and health information can be distributed to doctors around the world via the internet. Vaccines are delivered via drones. Apps predict earthquakes. The world is changing because of technology.
Tablets Improve Reading Scores, Behavior At Juvenile Facility
Indiana Public Media
A juvenile correctional facility in southeastern Indiana started an experiment two years ago. It distributed secure tablet computers to all of the girls. The goal of the technology was to help improve the girls’ educational experiences and opportunities. But the tablets are having an impact beyond the classroom.
Can Giving Prisoner Android Tablets Save Taxpayers Money?
The U.S. prison system is absolutely massive—more than two million Americans are currently in jail, and 40 percent of inmates return to prison within three years. This also takes an economic toll—$74 billion in U.S. taxpayer money is used annually to offset correction costs for America’s 2.2 million prisoners (who represent 22 percent of the entire world prison population).
Online behind bars: if internet access is a human right, should inmates have it?
For most of the developed world, internet access is a given. Google, Amazon, Facebook offer a privileged world of communication, entertainment, shopping and education that many of us take for granted. Unless, that is, you happen to be incarcerated.
From Prison Tech to Educational Museum: Companies That Redefine Customer Service
Chris Grewe, an educational publishing veteran turned founder and CEO of American Prison Data Systems, wants no repeat end-users. Founded in 2012, APDS uses plastic-enclosed tablets to securely deliver content and services to inmates. APDS aims to reduce recidivism by providing inmates with educational and vocational apps plus limited contact with the outside world.
Prison ed tech takes off: Tablet-based systems in correctional facilities help inmates get educated
Tablet-based systems in correctional facilities help inmates get educated, learn new skills—and maybe find a job when they’re released. In his many years teaching prisoners incarcerated in Alabama’s state correctional system, Brannon Lentz has never seen anything like it.
2-year program at Madison facility shows positive impact tablets have on behavior
The data is still being collected, but the staff at the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility is noticing the nearly 50 incarcerated young women are calmer, not filing as many grievances and reading more books.
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