A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

College Inside
Sign up for the newsletter

A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • This week, we’re copublishing the first results of a survey on the user experience with prison tablets with Slate.
  • Join me on Friday for a panel, “Pell 101: Information for Librarians and Those Serving People in Prison,” organized by Ithaka S+R. Register to attend on 9/29 at 2 pm EST.
  • The Education Department published a new FAQ on Fresh Start for incarcerated student loan borrowers.
  • ICYMI: Think you know how higher education works in Swedish prisons? You might be surprised.

We Surveyed People in Prison About How They Use Technology.

Last spring, we sent out a two-page survey to our incarcerated College Inside readers about the personal tablets that are increasingly ubiquitous in prisons and jails across the country. There’s been a lot of coverage about the fact that these devices exist and how much people are paying to use them. (I’ve previously written about the challenges with troubleshooting glitches when the tablets don’t work the way they are supposed to). What we wanted to know, however, is how people in prison actually use their tablets. Similar to a consumer product review, we asked them to rate their tablets, share the pros and the cons, and tell us if and how they used their tablets for education.

We heard back from around 80 men and women from across the country. Most responses were handwritten, but some people even used the tablets to send back their answers. (A special shout out to our former editorial assistant Maddison Hwang, who transcribed the bulk of the responses for us).

In general, people reported using their tablets for entertainment and communication. Only in a few instances did we hear that people are taking college classes on the state-distributed tablets. It was more common that incarcerated students who did use technology through their prison education programs had access to a separate laptop that was only for college. It’s not unlike the free world where we generally have multiple devices – mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops, all for different purposes.

The results also got us thinking about the difference between “education” and “educational content.” Depending on the state, some tablets come with preloaded and preapproved content that can range from podcasts and e-books to Khan Academy Lite and GED prep material. But in others, “our tablet does not provide educational content” was a persistent theme.

We’ll continue to cover the role of technology in prison education in the coming months.

A virtual lifeline or a digital babysitter? What it’s actually like to use tablets in prison

Calculator. Word processor. Alarm clock. iPod. Mobile phone. Paperweight. These are just a few of the roles that tablets play in the lives of the people now using them in prison. According to the companies who make these tablets, they have around a million users in prisons and jails across the U.S.

Over the last decade, corrections departments have handed out these personal devices—which are part of a billion dollar prison communications industry—to the prison population. They’ve been pitched as educational and entertainment tools, connectors to family and friends, and a path toward digital literacy.

And their role is only poised to grow. More college-in-prison programs moved online during the pandemic, and an increasing number of tech companies are interested in business opportunities created by the return of Pell Grants for people in prison in July.

While tablets have been a gamechanger for some, others who use these devices behind bars say they often amount to little more than digital babysitters. When Open Campus surveyed more than 80 people in prison about their experiences with tablets, we found that the promises of this technology often fall short.

User experience varies widely across systems and states. Some people are able to use their devices to conduct legal research, listen to TED Talks, watch Khan Academy videos, and draft journalistic articles. A number of colleges have also started to offer for-credit classes on the communication tablets, but the uptake has been slow.

The two biggest players in the industry, Securus and Viapath, have recently attempted to rebrand themselves as education providers, pointing to educational content on their devices. Securus, for example, said it has partnered with seven state corrections departments to offer classes through a dozen colleges. Since 2015, more than 1,600 incarcerated students have earned degrees using Lantern, Securus’ learning management system.

The vast majority of users, however, say that they use tablets primarily for entertainment and communication. And even for those who have access to more comprehensive content, buggy apps, tech glitches, and unresponsive customer service often get in the way.

Take Atif Rafay’s experience. His Securus JP6 tablet, issued to him in Washington state, lacks some of the basic functions that are central to writing, learning, and working—which is why he doesn’t view it as providing “real education access,” despite the fact that he uses it “constantly.”

The poor user experience often discourages people from accessing available educational content. “The operating system is so clunky that no one wants to log out/log in just to explore what else is there,” wrote H. L. Tapia in Ohio, who asked to go by her first initials, about her Viapath tablet.

This clunky user experience is not at all inevitable, said Patricia Prewitt in Missouri, which uses Securus tablets. Accessibility is also a major issue. “I was a coder for the Missouri Dept of Corrections for 20 years and know this can be much better,” she wrote. “We wish the tablets were bigger for the visually impaired and elderly, but beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I was a coder for the Missouri Dept of Corrections for 20 years and know this can be much better. We wish the tablets were bigger for the visually impaired and elderly, but beggars can’t be choosers.”

– Patricia Prewitt, Missouri

As Prewitt also alludes too, there’s no freedom of choice when it comes to most things in prison—you have to take what you can get. As Bragg in Wisconsin put it: “There is nothing good about this tablet other than the fact that we actually have one.”

Maddison Hwang and Lily Barajas contributed to this project.

Read the full story here.


++ Here’s what happens when prison tech stops working.
++ For more on digital surveillance, read Lyle C. May’s story for Scalawag.
++ This Prison Policy Initiative report provides more details on the current usage and economics of e-messaging, including price per message by state.
++ Here’s how prison tech has  and hasn’t — changed in our story on an IBM coding program from the 1970s.

News & views

  • Applications are now open for the Prison Education Book Connection. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. will donate to higher education in prison programs for use in spring 2024 classes. More information on how to request books here.
  • Students at the D.C. Jail have reached a settlement in a lawsuit filed in 2021 over the city’s failure to provide them with adequate education during the pandemic, DCist reports. Read Donovan Diego’s related story on Minnesota’s failure to provide accommodations to incarcerated GED students with disabilities.
  • The Appalachian Prison Book Project released a statement on proposed budget and jobs cuts at West Virginia University. Many faculty teaching in WVU’s prison education program are housed in programs slated for discontinuation, they write.
  • If you work with incarcerated students, please make sure they get a copy of our FAQ on Pell Grants.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. I’m particularly interested in hearing from faculty teaching in prison education programs about how the political backlash against liberal arts education in general and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in particular is impacting them. If you are a faculty member or administrator who is working in prison education in a state where this is happening, how is this impacting your program? Please email me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org.

You can also reach me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We also publish the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website.

There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. You can also donate here.

Interested in reaching people who care about higher education in prisons? Get in touch at sales@opencampusmedia.org or request our media kit.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.