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Expanding distance learning access in prisons: a growing need.

Nearly a half-century ago, Erving Goffman (1) presented the ideas and concepts of the "total institution" as it was reflected in the conditions of inmates held apart from general society. The reasons Goffman listed for incarceration were mental illness, punitive sanctions and the protection of general society based on criminal behavior. The contemporary world of the Internet and, particularly, the rapidly developing notions of "Web 2.0," involving the increased application of computer and Web-based resources in enhancing educational processes and outcomes, present further dimensions of the "total institution" that Goffman himself could only imagine.

John Seely Brown and Richard Adler (2) detail one such dimension in their article, "Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail and Learning 2.0." In their view, the 21st century learning is headed toward global collaborative learning involving the use of Web-based communication and resources as a central part of education from elementary school up through higher education at the post-graduate level. They state that the Internet "has created a global 'platform' that has vastly expanded access to all sorts of resources, including formal and informal educational materials." In the correctional environment, where Internet access is highly restricted, inmates are ultimately held separate from such technology and lack understanding about advancements.

The current state of Web-based educational tools and resources ranges from existing electronic access to literature and Web pages, to newly developed and advanced cognitive education and tutorial systems. At the Carnegie Mellon University-based Pittsburgh Science Learning Center and Language Technology Institute, for example, learning researchers have developed "adaptive learning systems" such as the Reader-Specific Lexical Practice for Improved Reading Comprehension that uses intelligent Web search to match a student's reading level and subject interests to articles and content extracted from the Web. It also supports reading comprehension practice with automated word look-up to expand vocabulary. Other projects at the learning center involve intelligent tutoring systems in science and mathematics.

Many of these Web-based resources have strong potential application in the correctional environment, where the delivery of corrections-based education has continually struggled based on expanding inmate populations, limited budgets and limited numbers of trained teachers. Such potential applications, however, collide directly with the security concerns over inmate access to the Internet and a general prohibition of access that dates to the development of the Internet's World Wide Web during the 1990s. Numerous state statutory prohibitions against inmates accessing the Internet remain in force and were passed by state legislatures at a time when the rapid development of technology and infusion of educational resources to the extent of Web 2.0 and Learning 2.0 were not readily foreseen or clearly envisioned.

Institutions of higher learning already use electronic and digital resources extensively. The University of Phoenix, for example, the largest private university in the U.S., presents more than 99 percent of course text resources in digital format accessible through the Web. In contrast, a study by Teresa Bowden (3) of Villanova University of a representative sample of 207 U.S. prison libraries found only one that allowed supervised access to the Internet by inmates. All others reported that they lacked sufficient security measures and the risks were too great.

However, informed decisions are on the horizon. In 2009, the State of Nevada Assembly debated a statutory change that would allow Nevada state prison inmates access to the Internet through kiosks that would support e-mail to and from approved contacts, online education opportunities, electronic law library access and even the downloading of MP3 music files. (4) Nevada Assembly Bill 34 represented a significant change in the legislative view toward inmate Internet access, and gained national attention through The Associated Press. At the point of this writing, the bill had passed out of committee, but was not voted on by the full assembly. However, the issue quickly generated significant controversy far beyond the borders of Nevada--somewhat ironically a social effect of an information-based and Internet-oriented society.

Higher Learning

For the first time in American history, a significant downturn in the economy is also accompanied by growing shortages and high demands for skilled workers, driven in part by slowing population growth and retirement of senior workers. While the U.S. is experiencing turmoil in the labor markets and layoffs in a number of sectors, there is growing evidence that a high school diploma and post-secondary education are essential to the economy and worker security. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 41 percent of all inmates in federal and state prison did not complete high school. The U.S. economy needs everyone to become part of a skilled work force, especially in light of the fact that by the year 2014, 78 percent of all jobs will require a post-secondary education.(5) The economy cannot afford to continue to recycle offenders; inmates need to leave prison, become employed and pay taxes.

To be successful, released inmates need to be educated. Inmates with more skills and training can find higher earnings and better positions. The majority of job growth today and in the future is taking place in fields requiring more education and training beyond high school. According to a new analysis by Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at George Washington University, "A little more than half (54 percent) of the 3.7 million jobs expected to be created by the new economic stimulus package will require some type of post-secondary education or training." Further, of the 46 percent of jobs that do not require any college, high school dropouts will be eligible for only one-fourth of those jobs, according to the study. (6)

Educated inmates are more likely to get and retain a job, raise healthy educated children and engage positively in civic activities. They rely less upon government health care and public services such as food stamps or housing assistance, and, most important, they are less likely to commit additional crimes. (7)

Corrections' Expanding Mission

The correctional mission is being expanded by a number of legislatures to include reducing recidivism, and many corrections professionals are working to ensure prison programs achieve this goal. However, according to a reentry guide published by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, "... prison officials may not view themselves as responsible for an inmate's welfare once that individual is no longer in prison. Similarly, post-release supervision agencies--probation and parole--often interpret their role as beginning when an inmate first arrives in a field office after release from prison." (8)

The reality is that focused reentry planning remains limited in many states. Inmates desperately need education, training and substance abuse treatment. In recognition of their expanding responsibilities, at a time when budgets are shrinking, correctional administrators are beginning to view the capabilities that technology brings to expand program offerings.

Limited and restricted access to the Internet is a critical challenge to the future of prison programming. It will take a combination of sound correctional practice and technology to make this programming option work. Whether it is for academic inmate education, work skill development, transition, searching for employment and/or staff training, the budget deficits will have a long-lasting impact on corrections. This impact will drive leaders to consider policy changes that were unthinkable in the past.

Access to Distance Learning Is Working

Rio Salado College, in Arizona's Maricopa County Community College District, has partnered with adult corrections for more than 25 years to deliver onsite post-secondary education to incarcerated men and women. During the past decade, the college has added an onsite occupational program for juvenile offenders in collaboration with the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC).

In early July 2008, ADJC took a novel approach to post-secondary education for those confined as juveniles by working with the Rio Salado College to develop a plan for online delivery of instructional services. The use of technology and the Internet has maximized ADJC's ability to offer higher education to its population statewide while minimizing the cost associated with on-site classes and full-time instructors. Although the college offers more than 500 courses through RioLearn, ADJC elected to limit initial course options for the confined juveniles to 20 approved courses. Courses requiring lab materials, special software or prerequisites were not offered. ADJC elected to identify students for enrollment in the online pilot program based on their completion of high school or a GED, age, time to release, and behavioral and academic history.

Parameters. At the onset, ADJC's information technology experts configured firewalls to limit students' access to the college's online learning system and library services. Rio Salado College teams also provided the necessary Web URLs for student access to materials hosted outside of the college's network. Additionally, the college restricted e-mail access so students could only receive e-mail from their instructors, and created a new system to audit student e-mail communications as a security measure.

For the students enrolled at each of the statewide facilities, computer labs are available during specific times of the day for online class activity. ADJC staff monitor the classrooms and online activity at all times. Initially, 30 eligible students enrolled in one or more classes. While peak enrollment has reached as many as 63 students, ongoing participation has remained consistent at about half that number, which has given ADJC and Rio Salado College the opportunity to effectively test and monitor this new method of delivery for confined populations.

Challenges. Security measures are paramount for the integrity of any online academic delivery system. Piloting Web-based learning for incarcerated students requires serious attention to type and breadth of access, such as availability of threaded discussions within the classroom environment, e-mail communication capability for students and library access. Today's technology offers a new paradigm for educational and correctional institutions that forge partnerships to explore Web-based learning customization, but neither the approach nor the solutions are always simple. For the administrators and technicians charged with program success and smooth operation, ongoing dialogue and communication are essential. Coupled with a collaborative approach, the partners must leverage time spent in constant review of student activity and the long-term value for program success.

Enhancing Learning Outcomes

In addition to the Arizona experiences, a number of correctional systems have been working with computers and the Internet to enhance the learning outcomes of inmates in their custody. Some inmates in Australia who are enrolled in distance education college courses are permitted "structured access" to the Internet. These students are also able to get tutoring from outside entities and communicate with their professors. Some inmates in Australia are even provided computers, which enable studies to be continued out of class. These computers are closely monitored. Access to the notebook computers is viewed as being motivational, reinforcing the continuation of college education and results in "higher levels of educational achievement amongst inmates, as well as providing computer skills." (9)

It was noted in another research report that the rural nature of correctional facilities can provide a positive environment to derive cost-effectiveness from the delivery of programming through the Internet. Researchers considered six case studies, finding that "where there are high levels of interactivity using the Internet and the use of pre-existing Web-based resources, the costs are often lower or at least not greater than traditional classroom instruction." Further, "students rate effectiveness [high levels of interactivity using the Internet] more highly compared with conventionally taught courses." (10) Distance learning programs today are continually improving. With more sophisticated support and powerful delivery media, Internet-based courses have been found to produce improved "learning outcomes that are, on average, slightly but significantly better than learning outcomes in comparable face to face courses." (11)

Today, the Internet is a part of daily life for finding directions, applying for jobs, paying bills, buying groceries, taking classes, and communicating with employers, friends and family. Access to online resources--and the skills to use them effectively--is an important part of surviving in an information society, as well as achieving personal goals.

There are intelligent systems that use natural language processor technologies to automate the detection of inappropriate language, statements and even images on the Internet. Such cyber monitors can alert for any overt acts and perhaps even coded ones that deviate from standard language parameters. What will be required is the engineering of such intelligent systems for use in corrections applications.

The time to pilot the Internet within prisons is now. To implement such an initiative, the profession needs to:

* Ensure the system is secure;

* Develop strategies to educate and calm the fears of administrators and public policymakers; and

* Pilot and publicize the successful application of Internet technology in prisons, developing a track record.

The nation needs all ex-offenders to join the work force. However, with most jobs requiring education beyond high school, those who are undereducated face a life of economic disadvantage. Without education and training, these ex-offenders, many of whom are minorities, will remain a huge tax burden, stressing state and federal budgets.


(1) Goffman, E. 1961. Asylum: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

(2) Brown, J. and R. Adler. 2008. Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail and learning 2.0. Educause Review, 43(1): 16-32.

(3) Bowden, T. 2002. A snapshot of state prison libraries with a focus on technology. Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian, 1(2): 1-12.

(4) Bussewitz, C. 2009. Inmate Internet access debated. Associated Press.

(5) Council on Competitiveness. 2008. Thrive. Available at

(6) Abdul-Alim, J. 2009. Most stimulus jobs require college experience: Study finds few jobs for high school dropouts. Youth Build. Available at

(7) Alliance for Excellent Education. 2007. The high cost of high school dropouts: What the nation pays for inadequate high schools. Issue Brief. Available at

Steurer, S.J. and L.G. Smith. 2003. Education reduces crime: Three state recidivism study, executive summary. Lanham, Md.: Correctional Education Association.

(8) La Vigne, N., E. Davies, T. Palmer, R. Halberstadt. 2008. Release planning for successful reentry: A guide for corrections, service providers, and community groups. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center. Available at PDF/411767_successful_reentry.pdf.

(9) Dawe, S. (Ed.). 2007. Vocational education and training for adult prisoners and offenders in Australia: Research readings. National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER): Australian Government. Available at

(10) Curtain, R. 2002. Online delivery in the vocational education and training sector: Improving cost effectiveness. National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER): Australian Government. Available at

(11) Walker, J.D. 2007. Is technology-enhanced learning effective? Recent research and the "No Significant Difference" Hypothesis. University of Minnesota, Office of Information Technology. Available at

Carl Nink is the executive director of the Management & Training Corporation Institute and a retired corrections professional from the Arizona Department of Corrections. Rob Olding, Ph.D., is the associate dean of the College of Health and Human Service at the University of Phoenix and a retired corrections professional from the Arizona DOC. Jo Jorgenson, Ph.D., is the dean of instruction, teaching and learning at Rio Salado College. Melisa Gilbert is the librarian at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Facility (Center Branch), with the Washington State Library system.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Nink, Carl; Olding, Rob; Jorgenson, Jo; Gilbert, Melisa
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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