In a previous TechTank post, Darrell West described how digital technology could be used to reduce rates of incarceration. GPS and radio frequency enabled technology provide an alternative to incarceration like house arrest and remote parole monitoring. A decrease in the number of prisoners physically incarcerated could reduce incarceration costs and ease the reentry of nonviolent offenders.
Recidivism linked to education
Offenders typically return to prison due to a variety of factors: most often, a lack of education, stable employment and housing, addiction, and other mental health issues. These factors often stack the odds against offenders once they have been released, making it far too easy to ultimately return to prison. Reducing recidivism rates would save taxpayers millions: a 2011 study done by the Pew Charitable Trust found that if 10 states alone reduced their recidivism rates by 10 percent, it would save more than $470 million in a single year. Digital technology can be utilized in order to address a variety of offenders’ needs. Let’s take for example education. Most offenders have a low level of education; one study showed that 37 percent of prisoners in state prisons had less than a high school education in 2004. This directly impacts the ability of offenders to obtain meaningful employment. Since offenders have such a low level of education, they are likely to be confined to a very low wage job, which increases the chances that they will pursue more lucrative (and often illegal) means to make a living.
Education is widely considered to be one of the primary ways to help reduce recidivism. RAND conducted a meta-analysis of over 30 years’ worth of data on correctional education and recidivism and found that those who had received correctional education had 43 percent lower odds of reoffending than inmates who did not. Despite this impact, offenders often have little access to programs that could help. This is due to a variety of reasons, including reduced services because of state budgets and inadequate staff training and instruction.
Digital literacy in prisons
This is where digital technology comes into play. In our increasingly connected world, developing digital literacy is quickly becoming essential, particularly when it comes to job seeking and researching community resources. However, ex-offenders are cut off from technological advances the day they are incarcerated. For example, after being incarcerated for 13 years, one offender recalled the experience of being released as “going from the old ages to Star Wars.”
Despite the importance of digital literacy, many correctional education programs do not provide students with Internet access. In a survey conducted by the Department of Education, 62 percent of correctional education programs did not have student access to the internet, and only 38 percent had simulated access (meaning archived offline versions of websites). However, programs that do offer digital literacy courses have seen success. For example, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s Ohio Central School system has been using secured seven-inch tablets in classrooms for the delivery of community college coursework. After two semesters offered, the program saw a more than 80 percent completion rate, with student having higher confidence in digital literacy.
Aside from access, utilizing digital technology in correctional education also could allow corrections staff to collect better data on student progress and monitor their behavior. Additionally, digital learning might benefit offenders who have struggled in the past with traditional in-person teaching methods due to behavioral issues. Through digital literacy courses, offenders could learn how to utilize the Internet when looking for jobs, affordable housing, and support community.
Balancing risks and rewards
There is an obvious security concern when providing offenders with an open channel to the outside world via the Internet. A study done by the Prison Reform Trust acknowledged that prisons are caught between the legitimate security concerns and the necessity of digital literacy in prisons. The study states “There are of course security risks which need to be managed. However, given the high cost to the tax payer and victims of reoffending, security risks need to be managed in a more proportionate way to enable [information and communications technology] to become an effective tool for rehabilitation.”
In order to reduce the astronomical costs of incarceration, reducing recidivism rates is critical. But we must do so in a fashion that addresses the underlying factors that cause them to return to prison. Support services are critical to offenders when they are about to be released. Through implementing digital technology into correctional education, offenders will be more prepared for the outside world, and ultimately have a better chance of staying out of prison.
Luke Hill contributed to this post.