Emily Duval, Taryn Johnson, Tony Solís Cruz, Jon White
Faculty Sponsor: Dr. Chris Marsicano
Education in prisons stands to increase prisoner wellbeing, employability upon reentry, and recidivism reduction, among other positive effects. As research on the benefits of educational programs in prison has expanded, prisoner reform advocates have pushed to implement educational programming in more effective ways. The increasing accessibility and cost-effectiveness of digital learning tools have opened up new possibilities to overcome barriers and better serve incarcerated students. A 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that the appropriate implementation of education technology can (1) “prepare students to join our globally networked society,” (2) “provide students with access to online assessments,” (3) “expand the professional development resources available to instructors,” (4) “support an education continuum for incarcerated individuals,” and (5) “expand the reach of correctional education services” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015, 2). As educational technology becomes cheaper and prisons remain understaffed, online courses and the use of computers stands to rapidly distribute standardized, high quality education to a large portion of the incarcerated population. As these new policies are implemented, however, research must promptly assess the efficacy of programs to make informed recommendations. Our research investigates the ways researchers and prison administrators in four Western countries–the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand–have implemented educational technology, and identifies similarities and differences across contexts. We discuss the major barriers to implementing education technology and place the role of prison education technology within the context of the broader penal complex.
We use a case study methodology to examine and analyze unique cases of educational technology programming in each country rather than prison education technology at large. The countries mentioned above were selected for their approximability, and because they are currently investing in prison education technology. Even so, the field of digital education is still in its infancy, and many programs are small scale trials. Among the countries selected, all countries have relatively high incarceration rates, with the U.S. being the upper outlier. We find that program designers approach the implementation of educational technology in primarily two ways: (1) providing individual e-readers or computers to prisoners for viewing course content, and (2) developing offline servers for the delivery of course content. Within these two areas, many questions remain open about the kind of device and the digital platform that would best suit incarcerated students. The effects of these programs appear positive, providing hope for the outcome of their expansion, yet program trials remain small, and the current research objective is optimizing implementation rather evaluating marginal outcomes.
The expansion of educational services and digital technology to incarcerated persons challenges popular notions of the function of prison, forcing us to reconsider the purpose of “punitive” and “rehabilitative” sanctioning and the relationship of the criminal to society.