Can Edtech Behind Bars Help Keep People Out?

Adult Learning

Can Edtech Behind Bars Help Keep People Out?

By Josh Mandell     Feb 25, 2019

Can Edtech Behind Bars Help Keep People Out?

A shockingly high rate of recidivism stands out as one of the worst problems facing America’s criminal justice system. A recent federal study that tracked over 400,000 prisoners after their release found that over half were put behind bars again within five years.

Proper educational programming behind bars offers some promise to buck that trend. When the RAND Corporation, a think tank, analyzed existing research on correctional education programs, it found that they generally lowered inmates’ chances of returning to prison and increased their likelihood of finding a job.

But the authors of the 2014 report also noted that research thus far has failed “get inside the black box of what works,” in terms of specific models of instruction and curriculum delivery.

Nevertheless, the challenge presents an opportunity to companies that aim to offer tools and services at the intersection of education and social rehabilitation.

Communication and Education, Hand in Hand

One of the newer entrants to this market is Edovo, which offers a tablet-based educational platform for prisons with the explicit goal of combating recidivism and helping inmates obtain employment after their release.

The Chicago-based startup’s educational offerings include a differentiated literacy platform, vocational training, wellness content and GED and college courses. It lets users access music, movies and other entertainment on their tablets as an incentive to view an equivalent amount of self-improvement programming.

When making the case for its effectiveness, Edovo points to its users’ high levels of engagement and the cumulative impact of its work at over 100 facilities across the country since 2013. The company claims that more than 100,000 individuals have completed over 340,000 vocational skills courses and viewed more than 1 million hours of educational content on its platform to date.

Randall Liberty, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, believes in Edovo’s potential to lower recidivism rates with programming that addresses root causes of incarceration, such as mental illness, substance abuse, and lack of education. The company launched an educational tablet program with Maine’s prison system in January.

“[Edovo] provides the tablets and thousands of hours of programming in a safe way,” Liberty says. “I think it has been a win for everybody involved.”

Edovo wraps Samsung Galaxy Tabs in a proprietary bulletproof case to protect against misuse and contraband, and delivers all of its content through a closed connection to a secure data center. Prison administrators can track every keystroke made on each tablet in their facility.

Last year Edovo introduced a messaging service that inmates can use to communicate with their families and friends. Edovo’s communications plans for prisoners in Maine start at $10 for 250 messages a month. The revenues that Edovo collects through messaging plans—which are paid for by inmates or their sponsors—make it possible for the company to provide its educational services at no cost to taxpayers.

Edovo spokesperson Mitchel Peterman says the company expanded into communications in order to compete with GTL and Securus, two giants of the prison technology sector that have been accused of exploiting inmates with unfair pricing models for their prison phones and tablets. He states Edovo can keep its prices lower by working with clients that don’t take a commission from the company’s messaging revenues.

“We want to make sure anyone we work with is more progressive … and aligned with our mission to make communication more available,” Peterman adds. “It’s always an uphill battle for us. ...We are going against two companies that control 80 percent of the market. But we are seeing movement.”

Offering reasonably priced communication services might strengthen Edovo’s bottom line while helping inmates and their families save money. But will prisoners be tempted to use their tablets primarily for texting instead of learning?

Peterman says that maintaining connections inmates’ support systems at home is also critical for their rehabilitation.

“Communication and education go hand in hand to improve opportunities and outcomes,” Peterman says. “Users, more often than not, independently self-select into engaging with the educational and vocational programming.”

Burden of Proof

But after operating for six years and raising over $12 million in funding, the Chicago-based startup still is unable to quantify its effect on these outcomes. Mitchel Peterman says that evaluating impacts on recidivism is “an incredibly complex endeavor,” given the long time frames needed to track success.

“These results will become more apparent as the program scales to a greater percentage of the incarcerated population and has been active for longer,” he believes.

Along with GTL and Securus, Edovo also faces competition from a like-minded startup in New York. American Prison Data Systems (APDS) raised $11.3 million in 2017 to expand its own tablet-based educational services.

Harris Ferrell, CEO of APDS, says his company prefers to limit its communications services to internal messaging within a facility. Instead of charging inmates for messaging, the company generates revenue by requiring jurisdictions to pay for its educational programming.

"There is not a conflict of [inmates] spending time on tablets doing messaging communications, and not doing [educational] programming," Ferrell said. "We are an education technology company at our core."

Like Edovo, APDS doesn’t yet have data to prove its impact on recidivism or employment outcomes. Both companies say they are seeking research partners to conduct longitudinal studies of users after their release.

APDS claims that its educational programming has consistently improved inmates’ performance on literacy tests and GED courses. Ferrell says that one client facility saw its GED pass rates increase from 27 percent to 59 percent.

First Steps

Prison education providers like Edovo and APDS are poised to benefit from recent federal legislation. The First Step Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018, will bring $250 million to the federal Bureau of Prisons for the development and expansion of skill-building, education and vocational training programs.

While the federal prison population makes up less than a tenth of all people incarcerated in the U.S., Edovo is optimistic that the First Step Act will influence how state and county prisons serve their inmates as well,

“We are excited that there is a focus on criminal justice reform [in Washington], and we hope that reform trickles down,” Peterman says. “It’s exciting for us, and for people who are affected.”

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