The 76th conference of the Correctional Education Association (CEA) was held in Tampa, Florida at the end of August. As the professional association for Department of Corrections (DOC) education staff, this conference is an important opportunity for sharing and learning about the latest trends, trailblazers, and trials facing those who provide education in prisons. With the restoration of Pell grants for incarcerated college students now less than a year away, we were eager to hear how DOC education leadership and staff were responding to this major shift in the field.

For those less familiar with the CEA conference: Since the primary focus of DOC education departments is Adult Basic Education (ABE), General Educational Development Testing (GED), High School Equivalency (HSE), and Career and Technical Education (CTE), often mandated by policy or statute, the overwhelming focus of the conference is in those areas. With the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell experimental sites initiative and the growth of college in prison programs through other state or philanthropic funding, attention to higher education has grown. Nonetheless, and despite the looming deadline for Pell restoration on July 1, 2023, higher education was not a central topic of discussion at this year’s CEA.

This is not to say that there were no takeaways for those interested in higher education in prisons. Below are some of the themes we believe are relevant to the field:

A Focus on Technology

Technology was a major focus of the conference, with vendors playing a larger role in the sessions than might be common in other fields (though with a notable absence of representation from the corrections tech titans Securus/JPay and ViaPath (formerly GTL)). Some sessions were devoted to presenting new technology implementations and the lessons learned therein. Ohio DOC, for example, showcased its implementation of 10,000 Chromebooks to support learning at all levels. While this particular presentation did not focus on supporting higher education specifically, the expansiveness of the planned access to the devices was notable; incarcerated students, and especially those in postsecondary programs, would be allowed to access the Chromebooks on nights and weekends to extend “school beyond the school doors.” American Prison Data Systems (APDS) also convened a panel of representatives from four jurisdictions to discuss how their tablets were being used to support education at all levels. Louisiana-based ATLO likewise led a session on how its services were being used to support postsecondary education, one of the only sessions specifically framed around Pell restoration and scaling up program offerings.

These sessions provided an opportunity for states in very different stages of technology implementation to share information. However, since so few attendees have strong IT expertise, it would be beneficial to provide a forum for DOC education leadership and DOC IT to talk through the more technical aspects of rolling out new technologies, especially as they relate to different requirements and security. To further study this topic, Ithaka S+R is currently fielding a survey on the national landscape of technology for higher education in prison programs.

Concern Over Staffing

The sessions’ focus on technology surfaced an important issue at the forefront for DOC leadership: staffing challenges. While presenters in virtually all cases stressed that they did not see technology as a means to replace education staff but rather to support, empower, and increase their capacity, the Q&A almost always led to a discussion of various jurisdictions’ staffing challenges and their interest in technology as a solution to those challenges.

Though the educational programming provided by the DOC is distinct from higher education in prison (HEP) programming, which must include staff from a college or university partner, HEP programs nonetheless rely on DOC staff to facilitate their operations. The staffing crunch will therefore undoubtedly have a negative impact on the programs and their students if solutions cannot be found. While technology can bend the cost curve and increase access to education, in-person instruction is widely held to be the most transformative aspect of higher education in prison. It will therefore be critical for HEP programs to attend to the staffing issues in their states and understand how the DOC is attempting to overcome these challenges at the general education/high school equivalency levels.

No “One Size Fits All” Solutions

Despite claims from technology providers, there are no “one size fits all” solutions. That was made clear by the wide variety of approaches, challenges, and solutions presented at the conference. This point was emphatically reiterated in a panel led by RTI from the penultimate session of the conference: “Using Technology in Correctional Education.” The panel served as a preview of RTI’s recent report on behalf of the Department of Education, “Building the Technology Ecosystem for Correctional Education.” Guest speakers representing the Departments of Corrections for Louisiana and Wisconsin summarized how they approached planning, structuring, and implementing technological integration in their correctional education programs. In the process, they also demonstrated just how differently the learning management system, network connectivity, and actual devices in each system can be. Ben Jones, the Educational Director from Wisconsin, repeatedly emphasized this point: every correctional system is different and each technological integration must be planned deliberately and respond accordingly. By the panel’s end, audience members were comparing strategies, obstacles, and solutions in live discussion and the technological ecosystem became a little more visible.

Looking Forward to NCHEP

With CEA behind us, we’re thinking ahead to the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison (NCHEP) which will be held virtually from October 11-14. We are particularly excited to see a number of topics and areas of interest represented in the event schedule. We’re paying close attention to Pell restoration and looking forward to panels exploring how states will respond, such as: “What’s Next? Paying with Pell in 2023 and Beyond” on Tuesday and “Pell is a Catalyst–Not a Solution–For Funding Postsecondary Education in Prison” on Thursday. We continue to closely track the role of technology in HEP and how that intersects with concerns about surveillance, so panels on “Building Connections Despite Surveillance in a Digital ‘Inside/Out’ Class” and “Educational Equity and Accessibility Through Technology: How to Ensure a Positive Impact with EdTech in Prison Education” are on our radar. We’re also particularly excited about how many panels will be focused on reentry—an area of need we expect to grow following the restoration of Pell funding. We look forward to learning more and seeing you at NCHEP.