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Getting Back on Track: The Viability of Online Learning for Formerly Incarcerated People

24-Feb-2020

Allie Cooper

The U.S. has a notoriously high population of incarcerated individuals, with over 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails. Of those, 41% do not hold a high school diploma, compared to only 18% of the general population of the U.S. Similarly, while 48% of the general population has received a post-secondary or college education, only 24% of people behind bars have the same education. There is a strong correlation between recidivism and the educational level attained by systems-impacted people; with no access to higher education after release and without financial resources or support systems, formerly incarcerated people are susceptible to ending up back in prison, rather than reintegrating successfully into society.

It’s the reason that Susan Barton established A New Way of Life, which has been a leader in pushing for more support and opportunity for the formerly incarcerated. More often than not, released prisoners are disadvantaged educationally, and states have responded by providing them with job and life skills and education programming. Now compelling evidence suggests that eLearning may be a more effective way to reach the prison population and reduce recidivism.

Outside the U.S., many prison systems rely heavily on eLearning to ensure that incarcerated individuals and those who have been recently released not only have access to a wide range of courses but also avoid having their studies interrupted if they’re transferred to a new facility or don’t have the means to attend physical classes after being released. A report by the European-based Learning Infrastructure for Correctional Services (LICOS) noted how eLearning expands the types of courses available and can be more easily geared to meet the needs of individuals with specific requirements or learning disabilities.

eLearning is, therefore, becoming more and more commonplace nowadays, with some of the largest eLearning platforms being accredited by tech and other institutions. More importantly, eLearning is helping people stay out of prison and create a future for themselves. In San Quentin State Prison, a Silicon Valley-backed organization called The Last Mile offers a full-scale coding program aimed at giving incarcerated people “hirable skills” when they get released. In order to get around the state prison’s strict no-internet policy, The Last Mile developed a “faux internet” using video seminars, which has allowed them to expand their coding training program as a distance learning model for other institutions such as Ironwood State Prison in Blythe. Indeed there are many benefits to distance learning, the ability to work at one’s own pace chief among them. Allowing students to complete work in their own time will help former prisoners who have parole obligations or those who can’t afford the fees associated with higher education.

In addition, eLearning through vocational certification programs geared towards technical skills training is helping reduce recidivism by providing folks behind bars with the practical education and skills they need to find employment, reintegrate into society and greatly reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

With the largest official prison population in the world, the U.S. prison system has reinforced cycles of crime, rather than reducing crime. Apart from the stigma attached to being an “ex-con,” individuals with criminal records also face significant challenges in the form of court fines, fees, and other legal financial obligations. After Florida residents passed a ballot initiative giving people with felonies the right to vote, Florida Republicans passed a bill requiring those people to pay fines before they can be re-enfranchised. While education and eLearning may not be a magic pill to solving all these interrelated problems, they are greatly reducing the number of people who walk through the proverbial revolving doors and giving formerly incarcerated men and women a new lease on life.

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