OPINION – Are American prisons doing their jobs? Are they rehabilitating inmates rather than simply punishing them? More than that, are the nation’s prisons adequately protecting society in exchange for the billions in taxpayer dollars spent annually to fund them?
These are just a few of the fundamental questions that have arisen as the nation debates ways to reform the American criminal-justice system. And they are vitally important questions, at a time when 68 percent of the prisoners who are set free each year find themselves rearrested within three years.
In many quarters, the growing consensus is that the nation’s prison system is failing in critically important areas, including dismantling the problem of recidivism. At the core of the problem is what critics describe as an outdated approach to criminal justice that inordinately focuses on deterrence (prison confinement) and punishment (again, prison confinement).
The approach, critics say, sharply limits a prisoner’s contact with support networks that can be vitally important after prison. This includes friends, relatives and other key members of his or her community who could help find jobs, temporary housing and other supports needed to reintegrate into society. To make matters worse, many prisons fail to offer tools and programs that effectively address many of the obstacles in a former inmate’s path to resuming a normal life, including a lack of adequate education or job training.
Technology: The New Vocational Trainings
Now, though, experts say the prospects for slowing the revolving prison door have been improved with the advent of technologies that include digital tablets, teleconferencing tools and the like inside prisons themselves. From New York and Atlanta to Detroit, Austin and Los Angeles, corrections officials are employing digital programs and tools to help inmates prepare for the arduous task of reintegrating into society. These technologies provide everything from online vocational instruction to regularly scheduled video chats and visits with family.
The need for such an approach appears to be bolstered by statistics. A 2016 study that surveyed more than 1,300 prisoners from nearly 100 prisons provided a number of telling trends and insights, including:
· 94 percent of inmates have no more than a high school education, at a time when employers are looking for employees prepared to meet the demands of a high-tech economy;
· 30 percent of prisoners who had in fact attended high school did not ultimately earn a diploma;
· While 37 percent of incarcerated adults reported using a computer in their jobs prior to their incarcerations, only 10 percent reported using a computer in their prison job assignments;
· Incarcerated adults who used a computer in their current job scored higher in literacy than their peers who did not use a computer;
· 58 percent of inmates completed entire prison terms without having finished any kind of educational program while in prison;
· While only 21 percent of prisoners were studying for a formal degree or certificate, over two-thirds (70 percent) of incarcerated adults reported that they wanted to enroll in an academic class or program;
· Twenty-three percent of incarcerated adults said that they had participated in a job skills or job training program during their current term in prison;
· Incarcerated adults who participated in a job skills or job training program scored higher in literacy and numeracy;
· Fourteen percent of incarcerated adults were on a waiting list for entering a job training program.
Dollars and Sense: Redirecting Correctional Costs
Currently, the average cost of incarceration per inmate is $31,286. Experts argue that by reducing recidivism rates, taxpayers’ money can be redirected from correctional expenditures to public health and education initiatives.
The demand for these technologies has helped expand a little-known industry of prison communications providers. These companies specialize in helping state and federal correctional officials implement new programs which allow prisoners to educate themselves, communicate with loved ones and succeed upon release. In order to achieve these goals, they are investing heavily in the development and distribution of new tools such as digital tablets.
This industry’s involvement recalls an urgent time more than a generation ago when private companies were tapped to help government corrections officials expand capacity at a slew of public prisons that had become dangerously overcrowded in states around the country.
The most dramatic improvements for prisoners because of these technological investments has been seen in the area of education. Once a unique privilege, these programs have now become much more widely available.
The statistics underscore the importance of such investments. Individuals who receive an education while in prison are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders. And access to job training helps build the foundation that will help these individuals be better positioned to find employment upon release.
Currently, there are several companies working in this space, but one in particular is leading the way. Securus Technologies—which is based in Texas but operates nationally— serves correctional facilities in 47 states.
Since Securus began offering digital tablets a few years ago, more than 85,000 incarcerated people around the country have enrolled in college courses, earning over 50,000 college credits. This is no small accomplishment, especially since the link between education and a reduced recidivism rate is so strong.
The Chief Growth Officer of Securus, Russell Roberts, says that his firm is dedicated to increasing the services available to those incarcerated. That means not only expanding a variety of communication services, but also providing education, training and operational services like bringing grievance requests online to modernize the incarceration experience. The company’s representatives believe they’re helping revolutionize how the nation brings technology to inmates.
“There is a crisis of recidivism in this country,” said Roberts. “And we need to make sure that when incarcerated individuals have served their time, we’ve prepared them to be successful on the outside. Technology enabled services brings these opportunities to scale. We’re proud to make these investments because we see the impact of our technologies every day on the lives of real families.”
Education the Ultimate Motivator: Ronnie Hopkins
The impact of these tools can best be seen in the stories of individuals like Ronnie Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins was incarcerated in Grafton Correctional Institute in Ohio for seven years where he served time for manufacturing methamphetamine and possession.
While on the inside, he saw his fellow inmates using tablets and he enrolled in an educational program called Lantern. Through the program, he was able to take GED courses and passed the test on his first attempt. He then began taking college credits through an online program offered on Securus tablets by Ashland University.
Upon being released, he used this educational foundation to complete his degree at Ashland and get a full-time job at Christian Healthcare Ministries. “Were it not for my faith and my education, my experience in prison would have been very different,” said Hopkins. “Studying gave me a reason to get up in the morning. And the promise of a better future after finishing my sentence was the ultimate motivator.”
In the past, incarcerated individuals like Mr. Hopkins would have seen their access to educational courses curtailed by logistical barriers. From limited classrooms, to inadequate writing materials and lack of instructors, the availability of digital tablets has helped resolve many of those limitations. As a result, access to an education is no longer contingent on prison location and individuals like Mr. Hopkins have the opportunity to take courses in an array of vocational and academic subjects.
But beyond their success in expanding prisoners’ access to education, these technologies have also been pivotal in maintaining prisoners’ connections to their communities so that they have networks of financial and emotional support upon release. Experts note the psychological impact of being in the relative isolation of prison, including anxiety, paranoia, hypersensitivity, and deep-seeded alienation.
To help address these issues,prison communications providers now offer email and video conferencing tools in addition to their educational programs. Being able to stay connected has produced a more reliable support network for ex-offenders in the days and weeks immediately following their release, when are they most vulnerable to recidivism.
Meanwhile, video streaming technologies allow families to communicate more frequently with their loved ones, while enabling experiences that were previously impossible, including seeing a son’s first at bat, watching a daughter’s wedding dance or saying goodbye to terminally ill parent.
In Mike Baldwin’s case, he served over 25 years in a number of correctional facilities in California. The three years before his release were served at the California State Prison at Corcoran, where he had access to a Securus tablet. Mr. Baldwin credits these communications tools (i.e. email, chat, etc.) with allowing him to reconnect with his children, who had moved to Florida at a young age, and who he had not seen for more than two decades. In the time he had his tablet, he estimates to have sent thousands of emails and messages.
“I was able to buy my grandson a Christmas present and then watch him open it on Christmas morning. That kind of connection gave me hope, and made me want to invest in my rehabilitation,” said Mr. Baldwin. “To this day, I still use the JPay app on my phone to communicate with friends that are still behind bars.”
Playing It Safe: Online Security Measures
To be sure, technologies in prison have raised questions about security risks, and whether they could be used to introduce contraband into facilities or allow inmates to coordinate criminal activities from within prison. But to confront these issues, the technologies are equipped with significant security and monitoring features that prevent their misuse. For example, tablets are unable to connect directly to the internet, and emails are screened like any traditional written communication to prevent problematic activity – say threatening a victim or communicating with a fellow gang member.
Officials from Securus say that these technologies both benefit incarcerated people and improve a prison’s security infrastructure.
“The reality is that with smart investment, correctional facilities can modernize their technological infrastructure, keep everyone safe, and empower incarcerated Americans with the tools they need to successfully re-enter society after their release,” said Roberts of Securus.
“Finding this critical balance is at the heart of what we do, and in terms of results for both officers and incarcerated Americans alike, we think our work speaks for itself. It is possible—in fact, it’s already being done.”
By Rachel Holloway | Special to the OBSERVER