In Massachusetts, six of every 10 inmates released from state and county prisons commit new crimes within six years. But a nationwide initiative wants to prepare inmates so that when they leave, they improve their chances of never coming back.
With 12 million people cycling through jail and prison each year, cell doors open and clang shut all the time.
At the Middlesex County House of Correction in Billerica, men in bright orange t-shirts and pants file out of the cafeteria. Lunch just ended and the smell of French fries clings to the air. Inmate Jeffrey Ivers sits at a long stainless steel table, his arms covered in self-drawn tattoos.
"Every time I come to jail, I always think it’s going to be my last time," he said.
This is Ivers’ ninth incarceration. He’s been in and out of jail for various offenses, most of them graffiti-related or for breaking parole. His alcoholism further complicates things.
"I’m petrified to leave jail," he said. "If I can’t stay sober, then there’s no purpose of finding work, being here for my family. Work will come if it’s ready for me."
Ivers has earned good time by taking part in the rehab program and being a peer group leader. He is getting closer to his release and a new initiative based in Chicago says it could help people like him re-enter the workforce once he’s out.
"We have lots of people cycling through doing very little with their time," said Brian Hill, co-founder of Jail Education Solutions.
JES wants to give inmates nationwide tablets that would offer various programs — without free rein to troll the Internet. Not only could they earn their GEDs and college credit, but also access legal information, explore career options and even take part in anger management courses.
"I think it’s something everyone wants to do and when you talk to them individually, they all know that that’s what needs to happen," Hill said.
Part of the goal is to make sure inmates don’t reoffend. That’s why there’s a re-entry plan linked to the tablet.
"Because we’re using a platform that is integrated online, it allows them to continue that and allows probation and parole officers to communicate with them," Hill said.
Next month JES will roll out about 2,000 tablets in the country’s six largest prisons. It won’t be on the taxpayer’s dime.
"Inmates will rent the device for $1 to $2 a day," Hill said. "We’re trying to build in tools where inmates can earn the tablet."
So they won’t have to spend their own cash. Instead, they’ll pay for the tablet rental with an hour or two of work. They’ll also earn points that can be redeemed to watch movies and other entertainment. It all sounds great — but would inmates actually use them?
"Technology isn’t really a thing for me," Ivers said. "I don’t even know how to turn a computer on."
Computer literacy might be the biggest hurdle for Jail Education Solutions, especially for inmates like Ivers, who’s been in and out of jails and prisons for 17 years, which, in case you need a reminder, was the time of dial-up modems. But Hill says the tablets are intuitive — plus, JES will provide training, which will make it easy for inmates to pick up quickly. I asked the prison’s superintendent, Sean McAdam, how he feels about bringing tablets into the prison space.
"I think, in corrections, we need to start to understand that the world beyond our walls is technology-driven, and to think that this population — are we going to restrict them to pen and pencil and paper? — is really unrealistic," he said.
In fact, Middlesex County is considering its own tablet-based education program, which may be proof that the status quo of prison life is changing.
"I think most inmates want to make the most of their time here," McAdam said. "A small population doesn’t want to do any of the programming but the majority here don’t want to be here any more than we do. So I think most of them are willing to try anything."
"It would interest me," he said. "I did start a Facebook, which I still don’t know how to use. I’m used to using a pen and paper, envelope and stamps."
But if things go in the direction JES is banking on, that could all change.
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