“Could there be a future in computer programming for prisoners?” The question was posed in an advertisement for IBM way back in 1970, but it remains unanswered.
The prisoner-reentry benefits of tech training in prison have been clear for more than half a century, but the same obstacles continue to hamper its adoption. Slate and Open Campus report. Such programs can be costly and difficult to scale. And, while the pandemic helped make technology like tablets more common in prison, perceived security risks often trump opportunities for learning and rehabilitation.
Training programs sprang up in multiple states beginning in the 1960s. But these training programs were sometimes short-lived, despite the benefit to individuals, either because of prison staff resistance, high costs, or difficulties retaining instructors.
In 2022, the D.C. Jail launched an Amazon Web Services cloud certification in collaboration with APDS, an education technology company that provides tablets to people in prison, at no charge to the students.
Being able to provide the training on the APDS tablets was significant because “it’s really hard to provide any kind of STEM programming inside that leads to some sort of industry certification or a living-wage job afterward,” said Amy Lopez, former deputy director for the D.C. Department of Corrections. Out of the 21 men who started the program, 11 completed the training. Most of those who didn’t finish chose to drop out or were transferred out of the jail, said Arti Finn, APSD cofounder and chief business development officer. The remaining men were able to take the high-stakes test to earn the Amazon credential inside the D.C. Jail, which was already set up to provide secure exams such as the GED.
The pilot program at the D.C. Jail supplemented the tablet-based curriculum with face-to-face instruction by Amazon employees and other experts and incorporated opportunities to practice job skills such as interviewing. But the hope is that the AWS curriculum, and other industry certifications, can be scaled to allow people to self-study for the certification on the APDS tablets, Finn said. It also increases access for people who aren’t able to take part in face-to-face classes due to schedule conflicts, such as with their prison job.
some are skeptical that tablet-based training alone will translate into high-paying jobs. It’s difficult to learn on a tablet, said Jessica Hicklin, who taught herself to code in prison. She’s now the chief technology officer of Unlocked Labs, a Missouri-based nonprofit that trains incarcerated software developers. Unlocked Labs is trying to add the Amazon cloud certification to its own training platform because the underlying knowledge is useful. But, Hicklin said, it would be difficult to break into the tech industry without direct connections to companies that engage in second-chance hiring. “I’m not sure it overcomes the stigma” of having a record, she said.
There are other criticisms of tablets, too. APDS has committed to never charging incarcerated people for its content or services. (Corrections departments or other state agencies pay for their tablets, Finn said). But other technology vendors routinely charge exorbitant prices for communications services and entertainment content.
And with the prospect of higher education becoming more widely available in prison with the restoration of federal financial aid later this year, those companies are also trying to rebrand themselves as educational providers. The two largest tablet providers, Securus and ViaPath Technologies (formerly GTL), together supply more than 1 million tablets to U.S. prisons. That means around half of people in prisons currently have some kind of tablet access.
Five years ago, for instance, Colorado became one of the first states to roll out tablets, which included educational programming, to around half of its prison population. But months later, prison authorities confiscated them. (The Colorado Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Today, most people in Colorado prisons still don’t have tablets.