The Massachusetts Department of Correction recently announced a partnership with APDS, an education technology company, becoming one of the first states in the country to make free education and career-readiness courses, including one to earn a GED, available to all incarcerated people.
According to a policy that went into effect June 30, all prisoners will receive a new personal tablet for free upon arrival into the system. This will give everyone access to the educational materials regardless of the length of time they still have to serve. This has the potential to have a significant impact on the state’s 6,070 incarcerated residents. Inside prison, educational opportunities are highly sought after and competitive to enroll in; and previously, people serving life sentences would be routinely waitlisted for years, sometimes indefinitely.
According to an APDS press release, this initiative aligns with APDS’ mission to break the cycle of incarceration through what they call pathways to living wage employment — at no cost to people involved with the justice system, including their families. APDS did not disclose the terms of its contract with Massachusetts.
“Incarcerated people need a sense of upward mobility and self-worth that an education and job training can give,” said Daniel Throop, a formerly incarcerated student who received his bachelor’s degree while incarcerated in Massachusetts. “The availability of new courses is a start toward closing the disparity between what the prison allows and what the residents need.”
Since 2012, when tablets were first introduced inside prisons, the education technology business with corrections has increased to a multi-million dollar market as more states have allowed incarcerated people to have tablets. Although the devices are not directly connected to the internet, they still allow residents to send and receive emails, make video calls and download approved games and movies. Some states provide limited educational platforms as well.
The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that each year, families of incarcerated individuals spend upward of $3 billion on services provided by for-profit companies to prisoners, including technology services.
Partnerships like the one in in Massachusetts break new ground because it is making the APDS content available to everyone incarcerated in state facilities. Most states have restrictions on who can participate in in-person education and rehabilitative classes because there are usually not enough seats to accommodate everyone who is interested. A common selection criteria is to only allow participation by those who have a certain number of years remaining on their sentence. Those serving long sentences, including life without parole, are often excluded because it is assumed that they wouldn’t need to be prepared for release for a while, if ever.
The reality, however, is that 95% of incarcerated individuals are eventually released, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many of them must overcome economic, housing and educational hurdles to succeed when re-entering society.
A 2016 Rand Corp. review of correctional education over the last couple of decades found that “providing education programs for incarcerated students significantly reduces future crime, separate from any other treatment they receive.”
And yet, 57% of incarcerated individuals do not receive educational programming, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In places like Florida, the third-biggest state prison system in the country, taxpayers spent $2.6 billion on corrections, but only 2.9% of that was allocated towards education and programming in the 2019-20 budget.
Having personally resided in a prison that did not offer any educational or career training programs, I know the importance of using tablets to gain knowledge in spite of an institution’s lack of programming. Tablets are a game changer that have the opportunity to level the playing field, allowing men and women to transition into society more easily, even when a prison offers no rehabilitative pathway.
Founded in 2014, APDS helps prepare incarcerated residents for employment through virtual job training in manufacturing and information technology, with plans to expand into other vocations. After an initial skills assessment, each “learner” is given a suggested path that fits their strengths, and begins training in a chosen field. The ed-tech company currently provides career-readiness content to thousands of people at 110 prisons in 18 states.
Of APDS’ clients, only Massachusetts and Tennessee make all education and job training classes available to everyone. Kansas, for example, does not provide general education or high school equivalency classes. One of the main obstacles is constrained budgets.
“We’re in many states right now and each administration’s education budget is different,” APDS co-founder and chief strategist Arti Finn said in an interview. “There’s not a lot of money allocated for learning.”
Every state’s DOC budget differs based on prison population, but money spent on education can mean the difference between the success or failure of incarcerated residents. Massachusetts, in a progressive move, provides programming for every single resident with a 2023 operating budget of only $97 million. By contrast, Kansas had an operating expenditure of $486 million last year, yet does not spend any money to provide GED classes on its tablets.
Using numbers from the Vera Institute and RAND Corporation, it costs around $31,000 to house someone in prison for a year, but only between $1,400 and $1,744 to provide some level of education to them during that time. Yet prison education budgets are getting smaller, despite evidence that they lower recidivism.
“Not every facility has the same resources, but they still don’t prioritize education,” said Throop, the formerly incarcerated student who also serves as co-chair of the Workforce and Employer Connection for New England’s Future of Higher Education in Prison. “The system isn’t equal for all students and has precluded many people from pursuing a higher education.”
Stakeholders in the process — incarcerated people and their families, prison education supervisors and community members — could provide recommendations on how to do better, Throop added.
APDS’ Finn said that 15% of the GED market is incarcerated students, and the company is committed to continuing to increase access to education technology inside.
“We are an education technology company that wants to change the industry,” Finn said. “We are funded by social impact investors who believe that tech can change people’s lives, and plan on offering learners a better future, no matter the length of sentence.”
For states that contract with APDS for full educational programming, the company works directly with existing education structures inside the prison, trains prison education staff, and even offers virtual courses for those who cannot attend in-person classes. APDS also provides an implementation team to deal with technical problems like spotty Wi-Fi.
“You can’t just give someone a tablet and expect them to learn,” Finn said.
For all of the new opportunities, finding a living wage career for all returning citizens is a long way off. Currently, the career-readiness programming APDS offers does not include any certificates, and the company does not provide job placement opportunities for people upon release.
Although an early pilot program for cloud computing by Amazon had an 85% completion rate in test prisons, the program has only been implemented in Washington, D.C. But Finn said that APDS is collaborating with the corrections departments in certain states to expand job training in cloud services.
“Our end goal is to get people interviewed when they’re released and receive a fair salary,” Finn said. “We don’t want to measure success by lowering recidivism, but by positive issues like rehabilitation through education.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.