The United States Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as of June 30, 2006, there are 1.6 million people serving sentences in state and federal facilities. This number does not include the roughly 600,000 additional inmates housed in local jails (AP, 2007). Inmate populations have been increasing in almost all states, with high numbers of recidivists. “The criminal justice system has frequently been referred to as a “revolving door” where offenders are released, only to be returned over and over again to incarceration” (Daniel, 2003, p. 3). While many educators focus on bridging the digital divide for rural and disadvantaged students, few focus on a much more isolated population: those in the prison system. Research shows that educating incarcerated populations lowers recidivism rates at substantial savings to state taxpayers. Just as the advent of the Web has revolutionized education’s reach, instructional Web technologies have the power to extend into the most dangerous and neglected schoolrooms in our country: America’s prisons.
Serving prisoners through traditional teaching modes carries inherent drawbacks. Most facilities are purposefully remote and disconnected from cities by broad land expanses (Erisman & Contardo, 2005, p. 39). Few educators join the teaching profession intending to focus on prisoner education, and many do not want to be on-site. Of those willing to teach prisoners, policies have unintentionally conspired to limit the pool of educators. Nevada added a graduate degree requirement that left many active instructors ineligible under the new legislation (Erisman & Contardo, 2005, p. 39). Because of the security risk and low supply of available educators, bringing teachers in-house, or rather in-prison, can be costly. Lacking the resources to stimulate options, course offerings for prisoners include a narrow range of subjects. Most programs center around job skills, manual trades, and literacy.
Despite the link between prison educational programs and recidivism, funding remains a perennial problem. The number of state-funded courses an inmate can take per term varies from state to state. New Mexican prisoners can take two courses per semester at the state’s expense (Howard, 2003). Recent recidivism rates in New Mexico have been roughly 70% within 1 year of release. Prisoners who received some education while incarcerated showed a 50% lower rate of recidivism (Howard, 2003). A former warden in the Utah State system estimates that “80 percent of offenders routinely come back to prison. Among those who get a college education… fewer than 20 percent return” (Carlson, 2004, p. A33). Aside from the sociological and humanitarian impacts, the state cost savings is compelling. At an expense ranging from $22,000 to $35,000 per year to house an inmate, a lower recidivism rate can easily justify more funds for education.
In some states, educational benefits are available for only a small portion of the imprisoned population. Currently, only one quarter of California’s inmates have access to educational opportunities. In 2004, California was poised to enact sweeping legislation to make education widely available to incarcerated populations. It called for an educational assessment within 90 days of incarceration, followed by programs tailored to convicts’ specific needs. Successes in other state programs suggested, “for every $1 spent on education, at least $2 would be saved on food and cell space alone” (Warren, 2004). Despite the compelling net financial savings evidence and the legislature’s support, SB 1399 was vetoed by the Governor for being “premature” and at cross-purposes with current efforts (Schwarzenegger, 2004). In addition to state funds being constrained, federal student aid was nearly abolished during the 1990s. Perhaps most damaging was Congress’s 1994 legislative action that made “prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants” (Schmidt, 2005).