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.
Since June 2014, each offender has been given a computer tablet they can use to access the classroom curriculum and do their homework. They also can peruse a digital library, play a few educational games and, as a reward for academic achievement or good behavior, they might get to watch a movie.
Susan Lockwood, director of juvenile education for the Indiana Department of Correction, explained that instead of spending their recreation time picking arguments with each other, the youths are now settling down by themselves to read or listen to music on their tablets.
The technology was introduced to help the offenders keep pace with Hoosier junior and high school students who are not incarcerated. More and more of classroom curriculum is delivered through web-based applications, but juvenile inmates did not have access to the internet, which made it increasingly difficult for them to keep up with their coursework while locked up.
Looking for a way to level the playing field, the DOC contracted with the New York-based American Prison Data Systems to provide the tablets and the operation software for the Madison facility.
“Honestly, we’re limited by the resources we have onsite,” Lockwood said. “This basically allows us to leverage technology to give them more opportunity.”
A toe in the water
APDS, launched in 2013 by educational entrepreneur Christopher Grewe, promotes itself as leveraging technology to make prisons safer and reduce recidivism through education, rehabilitation and reentry. Rikers Island in New York City and San Francisco County Jails along with juvenile facilities in Kansas provide these devices to their inmates.
Much of the company’s work is provided to prisoners by way of tablet computers.
Each device is encased in a plastic shell to prevent the offenders from breaking the machines and using the pieces to injure each other. Also, the software has been modified so the inmates can only access a private internet network. Content and access are controlled, which prohibits surfing the web or using social media.
Lockwood said access to the internet was a big concern because the DOC did not want inmates getting online. APDS uses a separate standalone network, something the state could not afford to create, and monitors all its tablets around the clock, which convinced the state to give it a try.
Offering the devices at only one facility was the department’s way of “putting a toe in the water,” she said.
The DOC appears to be considering an expansion of the program. Earlier this year, the department issued a Request for Information to solicit ideas for “a digital content platform and tablet-based services for adult and juvenile offenders.” According to the RFI, the DOC would like to implement a tablet-based system to provide educational services to rehabilitate the offenders and reduce recidivism.
Grewe described APDS’ work in education as building a digital bridge across the increasingly wide moat between schools behind bars and schools on a neighborhood street. As he explained, in the 1950s both kinds of schools had blackboards, erasers, textbooks and teachers. But today, technology has dramatically changed the neighborhood school where students are taught through interactive learning programs while the incarcerated students are still relying on ink and paper.
Indiana is paying an estimated $800 to $1,100 annually per tablet at Madison. Lockwood acknowledged providing the handheld computers creates another expense for the DOC but she speculated the state might realize some savings by using technology to cover all subjects instead of having to hire additional teachers.
More immediately, Lockwood said the technology allows the school in the Madison facility to offer a full catalog of high school courses. If, for example, one student needs a biology class and a certified biology teacher is not available, the young woman can still take the course delivered through APDS with the teacher onsite providing assistance.
Continuing to graduation
On their tablets, the Madison offenders can access the same educational materials as their peers outside the facility and receive credit that will transfer to their local schools when they are released from the DOC.
Typically, the young women are kept at Madison for about five months until they return to their communities. Lockwood, pointing to the oft-recited fact that education helps lower the recidivism rate, said the ability to transfer credits is especially important because it enables the offenders to continue moving forward in their coursework rather than losing several months behind bars.
“Any 14-year-old would be going to school,” Lockwood said. “Just because they happen to be inside a fence, we want them to continue the path to high school certification.”
From his work in the juvenile division of the Allen County Public Defender’s Office, attorney Jeff Terrill said that most youths coming through the justice system seem to want to go to school. He wondered if those held in the local detention center just go to class as a way to break up the monotony of their day, but he still believes education is essential to staying out of trouble.
Terrill, a partner at Arnold Terrill Anzini P.C. in Fort Wayne, said the initiative at Madison sounds like a “fantastic idea.” Along with enabling the offenders to stay connected to their curriculum and more easily return to their schools, they will know how to use the tablet technology.•