Ithaka S+R has published the results of a first-of-its-kind, nationwide survey of technology access in higher education in prison programs. You can read the full report findings, discussion, and recommendations here, as well as a condensed version of the key findings and figures.

Important Information for a Field in Flux

In July, the FAFSA Simplification Act went into effect, reinstating federal Pell grant funding for students who are incarcerated, and it is expected to increase access to postsecondary education. Pell reinstatement has put a spotlight on the field, which has been undergoing extensive change as a result of a complex constellation of factors—from the partial reinstatement of Pell funding through the Second Chance Pell experimental sites initiative, the effects of the pandemic, prison staffing crises, and changing views on the role of technology in education. And yet, despite this, quality data about what technological devices, platforms, and access are available to postsecondary students inside prisons is scarce. This survey served as a first attempt to collect this information and make it available at a national level and the findings will be of interest to policymakers, educators, program administrators, students, researchers, and advocates in the field.

Our findings suggest that a variety of frameworks exist to deliver postsecondary education inside prisons and that the way program instruction, coursework, and services are accessed and utilized differs radically across and even within states. The survey respondents indicated that most instruction is still provided in person. And while desktop computers are the most frequently available device for educational purposes, in nearly a quarter of the programs surveyed, students do not have access to any technological devices.

Directions for Future Research

As the field of higher education in prisons expands and changes it will face new challenges in providing technological resources, teaching information and digital literacy skills, and defining and ensuring student success. One of the key discoveries in the report is that a complex array of factors—including security concerns, staffing issues, programmatic conflicts, and spatial or device availability limitations—can reduce access to technology even when prison policy explicitly allows its use for educational purposes. We believe more research is needed to begin to define and measure quality and equitable access to technology, for instance whether students are able to use it to complete and submit coursework, with the same functions and capabilities students on the outside enjoy, in an environment conducive to learning. That is, we need to move beyond a simple dichotomy and toward a more holistic framework for understanding the dimensions of quality access. The report also highlights the growing need for research on disability best practices and interventions in postsecondary education in correctional settings, as many of the issues identified as barriers to quality access may have disproportionate impact on students with disabilities, a topic we recently highlighted on our blog.

While this survey report is only a first step in beginning to understand the national landscape of technological access in higher education in prisons, its results make trends in the field visible and demonstrate how multifaceted and site-specific implementing technological access can be. With funding from Ascendium Education Group, we are building on the report’s findings and taking a student-centered approach to study technological implementation frameworks in postsecondary education in prison programs, in order to provide decision-makers with better data about existing technology ecosystems and student experiences in them. To that end, we are recruiting Departments of Corrections and/or prisons to partner with us on student-centered case studies of their technological framework and its current educational applications. If you are interested in participating, please contact Ess Pokornowski.