The rapid shift to online or distance instruction in the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most pressing and challenging issues for the field of higher education. This sudden, mass migration to online learning has crystallized issues of equity and access, as not all students, instructors, or even institutions are equipped to make this leap. Lacking regular access to computers, and with virtually no access to the internet, incarcerated college students, and the programs that serve them, have few options as they try to continue coursework, or even contact their students. How higher education in prison programs have adapted to the crisis is thus closely tied to the information delivery and technology systems in place in the facilities they work in. In a new report, we examine how the landscape of technology and information resources for prison higher education is changing and outline how the main service providers, technologies, and business models intersect with higher education in the prison space. While the long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unclear, it seems likely that higher education in prison programs, like the field of higher education in general, will have to explore and decide upon different delivery modalities not just in the short term, but for the next several years. We offer these preliminary findings to help inform those decisions.

As support for providing higher education to incarcerated individuals has grown in recent years, a number of technology providers have developed offerings capable of supporting higher education programming. The report summarizes these offerings, provides background on various provider business models, and explores how some of these providers have been able to offer access to large volumes of educational content through their devices. As the availability of these offerings are likely to grow, they present a significant opportunity for higher education in prison programs to expand their communications, information access, and course delivery options.

It is also important to recognize that the adoption of new technologies must be done with serious consideration of their pedagogical and economic impact. In the interim report we discuss some of the exploitative practices providers have used as well as the opportunity for increased surveillance these platforms create. Perhaps the most pressing concern, especially in the current moment, however, is that the increasing use of technology will lead to the diminution or outright cessation of in-person instruction. Concern over this issue is playing out in higher education more broadly, but is especially pressing in the prison context. In-person instruction is perceived by some Departments of Corrections as placing a heavier burden on their own staff as supporting higher education programming is rarely a part of anyone’s job description. As remote instruction takes up less staff capacity than in-person instruction, many programs worry that the result of increasing the availability of technology will be a DOC mandated switch to remote instruction, even if in-person course offer more benefits to, and is preferred by, students.

Ensuring that in-person instruction is not diminished as a result of increasing technological affordances in prisons will therefore be a critical challenge for the field. At the same time, it is important to recognize that incarcerated college students need the opportunity to develop the digital literacies they will need upon reentry. The goal, therefore, must be to provide incarcerated college students with the information and technology resources they need in order to have an educational experience that is more equitable to that of their on-campus peers.

What’s next? Our research for this project is still progressing, and in the final report we will explore in more detail specific implementations that programs have adopted along with the successes and challenges they have encountered. The final report will provide the necessary complement to the interim report by profiling student and instructor experiences with different information and technological resources on the ground. Given that every jurisdiction is different, it is important to pool and share this information to help higher education in prison programs as they continue to advocate for educational equity. In addition to the final report for the project, we will also be publishing a series of blog posts highlighting how some programs have adapted their programming, what DOC state education directors are thinking about the future of higher education in prison post COVID-19, and how the move to online has impacted formerly incarcerated students continuing their educations after release.