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A Tablet-Based Distance Learning Program Reaches Its Way Into Jail

States are cutting down education programs in prisons, just when they are needed most. Can technology fill the gap?

America has the highest prison rates of any nation in the world, but we do a poor job at providing opportunities for prisoners to turn their lives around using the time they spend in jail. A dwindling number of inmates have access to education programs today. In the last two decades, spending on corrections has quadrupled in the U.S. But spending on education within prisons continues to shrink.

"We have 2.25 million people sitting around in jails or prisons on any given day and most of them are watching daytime television," says Brian Hill, founder of Edovo. "That's not the best thing we can be doing for them, both for taxpayers and the individuals themselves."

Edovo's solution comes in the form of a ruggedized tablet that links to a dedicated website (and only to that website). In return for completing GED modules and parenting-while-incarcerated classes, inmates are rewarded with entertainment, games, and music. A two-hour class equates to 30 minutes to play a game of online sudoku, for example.

Since launching three years ago, the Chicago startup has leased its devices to jails and prisons in 15 states, with jails in another five soon to come on-board. The cost is about 75 cents per day per inmate.

"This is about giving everyone access to rehabilitation. It's not a replacement for education programing, but it fills a massive void in prisons today," he says.

As well as academic classes in math and reading, there are vocational courses and self-help tracks, like anger management. The tablets are connected to a private cloud server, not to the public internet (though some prisoners have tried to hack them).

Hill claims the tablets help cut violence levels and increase the chance that inmates will stay out of prison once released. Previous research indicates that education spending cuts the recidivism rate. The Rand Corporation, which carried out an extensive study-of-studies, says every $1 spent delivers $4 to $5 in reduced expenditures connected to reoffending. Inmates who participate in education programs have 43% lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don't participate, it says.

"We can decrease recidivism through technology. The inmates are getting tablet devices that allow them to engage and not come back," Hill says. We'll have to wait a year or two before Edovo can prove its claims in an authoritative study. But the idea of spreading access to education in prisons certainly seems promising.

[Photos: via Edovo]

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