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The Age of Reform and eLearning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
September 2, 2019

The focus on skills-development by the departments of corrections using the custodial approach to prisoner management arguably gives inordinate attention to criminal offenders’ at-risk factors (ethnicity/race, economic issues, criminal offense and attitude) rather than considering the social factors affecting working prisoners who want a chance to reform. The Second Chance Act of 2008 (conceptualized in 2005 and signed into law three years later by President Obama) is one attempt to help ex-prisoners return to their homes and neighborhoods after release.

The age-old question of whether the goal of corrections reform is to eliminate prisons (e.g., the incarceration custody model) was posed in the 1990s by policymakers in California grappling with administrative inefficiency and recidivism; their reforms include involving some offenders in community-based alternatives rather than incarceration. The political notion that effective corrections requires eliminating prisons rests on a fallacy; the issue is the capacity of prisons to return ex-offenders to their communities as producers rather than as predators.

The Public Policy Institute of California did observe that adopting policies by national and state agencies designed to reduce prison populations has shifted responsibility to local governments. Certainly, the overreliance on warehousing is inconsistent with modern custodial approaches in which prisoners work. However, prison incarceration can involve, in private prisons, demeaning and exhausting jobs on chain-gangs and in laundry rooms and rock quarries.

From its inception, the penitentiary custodial model of corrections has meant criminal offenders working toward repentance and the efficient operation of their correctional institutions. Research on the subject has drawn attention to the harsh conditions associated with the ethos of efficiency, but around 2 percent of prisons are now working on joint ventures (initiated by the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program [PIECP] Act of 1979) arranged by Fortune 500 companies involving computers, telephone reservations and clothing manufacturing.

The National Criminal Justice Research Service, in a brief about PIECP partnerships, described conditions in which prisoners were earning a minimum or market wage and acquiring marketable skills and self-esteem through work. The question of whether prisoners should work for public or private correctional facilities is more interesting than whether they should work at all. A 2018 Bureau of Justice Assistance study of the PIECP programs identified 44 jurisdictions participating in joint ventures, and a National Institute of Justice study of work-release models by Bale and colleagues did find that prisoners who participated in supervised post-release work significantly reduced their chances of recidivism.

There is widespread agreement that prisoners should have such support as counseling (for substance abuse, anger management and family issues), education (basic, high school, college, workplace literacy) and apprenticeships and vocational training. However, the custodial approach recognizes that some prisoners require administrative segregation in secure housing units that can extend around the clock in maximum-security prisons (e.g., California’s Pelican Bay)—conditions that obviously complicate efforts to provide them with work and education.

In terms of overcoming inequities in educating prisoners, Sellers reported in 2016 that online learning can lower recidivism rates for American prisoners using online learning, corroborating a 2012 report by Farley and Murphy that mobile electronic learning modalities can be effective in prisoner education programs. Given the push to reform warehousing-focused corrections to take advantage of such advances in technology as house arrest with electronic monitoring in this, “Age of reform,” one compelling question concerns the effective integration of eLearning into the corrections custodial model. Considering that, on average, prisoners return to their communities within 2.5 years and without skills, they face high rates of recidivism, especially within 6 to 36 months after release, at least according to the National Institute of Justice.

Two security issues in particular that need attention are network infrastructure and software, which depend on applications disseminating the learning curriculum and allowing student prisoners unrestricted access to networks within the security limits. Since Internet access can be problematic, alternatives are needed for learning tasks. For example, in a course management system that requires both teachers off-site and incarcerated students to work online, the latter may attempt to engage in illicit online activity.

Regarding educational software, issues include unrestricted intra-prison communication technologies for eLearning, firewalls and network security management systems that reduce risk while ensuring that prisoners in security units can continue their education. Fortunately, advancements in technology that can improve prisoner education have coincided with the emphasis by such stakeholder groups as educators, prison managers and guards, and advocacy groups on work-related literacy and numeracy skills. In sum, correctional education programs are intended to break the cycle of catch-and-release by giving inmates the skills necessary for succeeding at home, in the workplace, and as members of their communities.


Author: Kimberley Garth-James, Fulbright Specialist in Public Policy and Administration; degrees are MPA (Administrative Management), MA International & Multicultural Education, and Doctor Public Administration. Experience in public policy planning, analysis and implementation and international and domestic speaker on corrections; California Legislature Resolution Honoree. Current Associate Professor & Director, MPA and the Center Public Policy. Email: [email protected]

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One Response to The Age of Reform and eLearning

  1. LACHARLES C JAMES Reply

    September 7, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Great article. These are much needed reforms. This current state of prison “catch and release” is not sustainable. We will have to return to sentencing laws that make sense.

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