Expanding Correctional Education Through Technology-Correctional Education Association

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2014/06/expanding-correctional-education-technology-correctional-education-association/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. And back at our microphones, Steve Steurer is the Execute Director of the Correctional Education Association. www.ceanational.org. The program today, ladies and gentlemen, is Expanding Correctional Education Through Technology. We’ve just come from the conference, the national conference that Steve put on in Arlington, Virginia, where he had federal secretaries of different agencies and people from all over the country talking about the expansion of correctional education through technology. I think it’s a really exciting concept. I think this is a very important program. Steve, welcome back to DC Public Safety.

Steve Steurer:  Thank you, Len! I really appreciate it.

Len Sipes:  All right. We’ve got a great story for you to tell about what happened in Ohio, but I want to start off the program with two basic constructs and you tell me if I’m right or wrong. By and large, whether it be vocational education, drug treatment, mental health treatment, GED programs, advanced education, basic education, by and large, those programs are vastly underfunded within just about any prison system in the United States. Am I right or wrong about that?

Steve Steurer:  You’re absolutely correct.

Len Sipes:  Okay, and what we’re trying to do is through technology and remote training, it may be the answer as to dramatically increasing inmate participation in basic GED and advanced education, correct?

Steve Steurer:  That would be correct, I’d say.

Len Sipes:  All right. So tell me about that. Tell me about this idea of using technology to expand correctional education.

Steve Steurer:  Up until now, the correctional systems in this country have for the most part been just dead set against any kind of internet hook up that goes beyond an officers’ desk or an officials’ desk. Only recently have some teachers been able to get some internet connectivity on their desk in the classroom in the prison, but the inmates are not allowed, and so that’s very closely gauged and watched, and that’s for a very, very simple and very good reason – because they’re afraid of gang communication and those guys getting out there and doing terrible stuff at porno sites or what have you. That’s a legitimate concern. We have said and we’re trying to prove now, that you don’t have to worry about that. We have enough capability to block that. Not that occasionally somebody would sneak through it, there’s always somebody out there, but we would probably have very few incidents using current technology.

Len Sipes:  So in essence the security part, the security concerns have been addressed?

Steve Steurer:  They have been addressed and there are many people that agree with that now, even correctional officials.

Len Sipes:  All right, so you had this wonderful conference. You had hundreds of people from all over the United States, you had two federal secretaries, you had lots of experts talking about correctional education, and what was the buzz within the conference? Was it enthusiastic about the idea of taking technology and dramatically expanding correctional education? What were the perceptions on the part of the people who came to the conference?

Steve Steurer:  The people that came there were really enthused. I’ve talked to a lot of folks and I’ve talked to other folks who’ve talked to other folks. They’re really enthused because of what they’ve learned and what they participated in, in terms of technology applications from different places in the country. And we even prototyped, we did a WebEx live from Ironwood Prison in California with Hollywood Producer Scott Budnick, who has devoted himself to this cause now. We had fifteen inmates in a room with a captain, Captain Roe, doing the technology and the WebEx and also in the hotel room interacting with these students back and forth with questions. There are how many prisons in this country have an internet connection in a classroom, able to do a WebEx, the distance learning on this from coast to coast, nobody’s ever done that.

Len Sipes:  Go ahead please.

Steve Steurer:  Well I was gone to say, and I mean, I have some other example but just to start, just to have that in the conference, people said they’d never had such a terrific, that was the teacher of the year dinner event. They’d never seen anything like that. It was the best they’d ever had.

Len Sipes:  I interviewed Dr Lois Davis. She works for the RAND Corporation. Their report in 2014 “How Effective is Correctional Education? Where Do We Go To From Here?” Within that report she did, and we interviewed her, and we’ll put a link to that interview in the show notes, but within that report, I got the sense that what she was saying is that using remote tools, using technology to provide an educational experience, again whether it be learning how to read, whether it’d be basic education, GED, advanced education, that the individuals participating in remote education have the potential for doing as well as having a teacher in the room. Am I overplaying that? Am I underplaying it? Give me your assessment.

Steve Steurer:  Well I think she’s not 100% right. I mean in my opinion I think that using and having the technology and then having the back up of experienced teachers working with it just will make it even more powerful because the population we’re working with, we’re working with for the most part, is not engaged in education on the street even where they have the technology. So there’s another human factor that needs to be put in there other than remote technology. But that’s a debate that goes on among professionals. But she has come out with a study that has shown us that there’s just a dearth of, a lack of technology being used in a situation where it could be so effective.

Len Sipes:  But the bottom line, and again, this is what I want listeners to do because a lot of people listening to this program are going to be from the Criminal Justice System and they’re going to be saying, “Leonard, tell me something I don’t know about the lack of programs within prisons.” But there’s a lot of other people out there, the aides to mayors, aides to congress people, congressional aides, aides to county executives, who don’t know. And I think the point needs to be reinforced that the studies that I’ve looked at indicate that in terms of drug treatment, mental health treatment, ordinarily you’re talking about 10% of the prison population or below that. In terms of educational programs you’re talking about less than that in some cases.

So the overwhelming majority of prison inmates, they’re sitting there for five years. Basically their needs for either mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment and I know that’s not what we’re talking about today, but educational programming, they’re not being met. So the only way we’re going to meet those needs is through technology, hopefully supplemented by real, honest to God teachers, trained teachers. But again, the premise of the program, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that if they’re not going to get it through technology in all likelihood they’re not going to get educational programs at all.

Steve Steurer:  That’s correct. That’s correct. And if I had a choice, if somebody said you can’t bring the teachers in but you can bring technologies in, I’d be the first person to carry the first computer in and help wire a place up, but then I’d start fighting for teachers that are technologically astute to be part of that. But we need to get technology in there and a lot of staff can be helpful with that. They don’t have to necessarily be teaching staff to have some kind of an impact.

Len Sipes:  Tell me about the program in Ohio. You did a pilot program and now they’re expanding it?

Steve Steurer:  Well, you know, the whole thing is nobody wants to take a chance. We’re not going to bring in even tablets because inmates can get off there one way or the other and do gang communication which is probably the biggest fear. And they’ll be sitting there looking at pornographic sites, which is you know, political death for people trying to run a prison and somebody finds that out.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Steve Steurer:  And so we got a project going in Ohio, where at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution last fall, with tablets from Union Supply, a company we’re working with, it’s a commissary company. They created a tablet that’s very secure. It can go to the Internet with Wi-Fi but it’s been locked down tight and blocked with the kind of software protections they have. Nobody’s been able; they’ve been using it as a media thing in many states. Nobody’s been able to get off that, nobody’s been caught on the Internet. So we turned into a classroom situation. Ashland University provides post secondary education for years in Ohio prisons, including Lake Erie. We issued twenty tablets from Union, put on college level courses, course in first semester with full credit entry level collage courses. The fellows had to qualify to be in these courses, so they met all the criteria.

The course was loaded onto an angel, which is like a blackboard program, online program, and they were put on tablets. The tablet also has a keyboard that you can plug and play so they can type rather than just picking away on the screen of the tablet. It has Microsoft word in it so they can write papers and save them. And twenty students started that course, eighteen finished it successfully, and there was not one tablet that was abused. They came out without any problem being broken or cracked on. Nobody, the correctional officers could open those tablets at any time, and they did to look and see what these guys were doing inside. Nobody attempted to mess with these tablets to create something different, to get out on the Internet. It was a total clean operation.

The Corrections Corporation of America has now signed off on these tablets for use in their facilities and they’re looking to do it in other places. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, which work with them, and owns, they co-manage that facility, has okayed tablets in Ohio for other uses. So the Ohio Central School System which is the school system by law, which operates the Prison Education Program in the state prisons, has now ordered and finalized a purchase for three hundred and fifty tablets to be deployed in various situations in the adult prisons over the next year and we’re working with them on that.

Len Sipes:  I’ll tell you I had a conversation and I’m not going to identify the person, and he said, here’s his vision; let’s just take the state of Richmond for an example, that you have somebody in the state of Richmond, somebody in the city of Richmond, doing classrooms, and there are twenty, thirty, forty classrooms going on at the same time, and that every person who wants to participate in the state of Virginia, that these programs are automatically going out to these individual inmates. Many of them are live instruction. In some cases the hope is that you can take questions, that you can ask questions back and forth between the teachers and the students spread throughout every prison in the state of Virginia.

And then that person said, “Well, Leonard, you know, if we can do that for any particular state, we can do it for every state in the United States. We can do it for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. We can constantly pump out again, basic education, 8th grade certificates, GED, reading programs, collegiate programs, vocational training, and we can also put on programs dealing with mental health and substance abuse. We can also have families talk to the individual inmates.” He saw it as a revolution in terms of correctional education. Is his thought just pie in the sky or is this something that actually can happen?

Steve Steurer:  It has happened in bits and pieces everywhere, and it will, and I’m hoping that we can make it happen, all those pieces together in lots of places. I mean you do have inmates now writing email. It goes through a secure server out to the family and back. And it’s the same thing like writing letters. The staff would sort of look at the letters in the mail coming in and out you know, and the same thing is now on email. That’s been done, that’s been done for a good number of years now. In the United States it’s happening, it’s happened in Europe quite a bit. We have now shown that you can use tablets safely, if you want to get it on wifi. We have had courses in various places going out on the Internet and teachers at the university nearby or something connected up, but it’s only happened in a few places and it’s usually more of a less a secure place.

But you know, we did this WebEx in California last night. We had fifteen inmates in the class in the middle of the Ironwood Correctional Facility in California. There was a correctional officer in the room, Captain Roe, who is very tech oriented. He was running the WebEx on one end and I was on the other end running our talk with the participants, we had three hundred people in a room we had teachers of the year. We were talking back and forth. We were applauding each other. We were asking questions of each other. You know, we could’ve run a video that everybody could see for some instructional purpose if we had wanted to. We could’ve provided paper on each end to do some subsequent work afterwards. We could’ve, you know, this could be done, it has been done, it’s being done in that one prison in California. In fact, that is being considered now in some of the other places because we’re doing it. It’s very secure and you know, you can go and find little bits and pieces of this stuff happening everywhere. It’s possible. It’s secure. And the enthusiasm of the students when they get involved with this stuff is terrific.

Len Sipes:  We’re almost halfway through the program. I might as well reintroduce you now, Steve. Steve Steurer, he is the executive director of the Correctional Education Association. www.ceanational.org. The program today is about expanding correctional education through technology. It’s piggy backing on the conference that Steve just had over the course of the last couple of days in Arlington, Virginia, right outside of Washington DC. It’s also piggy backing on a rather substantial piece of research; “How Effective is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go to From Here?” by Lois Davis and I did interview Lois on another program and I’ll put the link to her program in the show notes as well as everything else we’re talking about. Steve, you had representatives from the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice at this conference, correct?

Steve Steurer:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And what was their take on all this?

Steve Steurer:  Well, the US Department of Education has been terrific in the last several years. And so we had the Deputy Secretary Johan Uvin, who is in charge of what is Career and Vocational Education, they call it OCTAE now. It used to be called OVAE. And he was there and he discussed with Gerri Fiala, the Assistant Secretary of Department of Labor, issues of workforce preparation, and services that are available through the Federal Departments and some of the things that they’re supporting with some upcoming small amounts of competitive funds. And then we had, the next day we had an assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who is in charge of the Second Chance grants and lots of other areas, BJA, Dennis works for her, and Solomon works with her, people that you and I know very well; and she was talking about particularly focusing on juvenile issues, juvenile justice issues and so that they were sharing some efforts they’re doing, some things they want us to be involved with and so the audience received us very well. We’ve never had that level of Federal participation in our conferences so that is very optimistic to me that we’re getting the message out and people are listening at a level where hopefully they can do something where it will affect policy.

Len Sipes:  But this concept has been kicked around for years in Washington DC. The sense is that okay, the states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons do not have the money; it’s not that they don’t want to do it, they just don’t have the money for the expansion of correctional education. We’re talking about over two million adults incarcerated in US prisons every year, with seven hundred thousand leaving Federal and State Prisons every year. We’re talking about a 50% rate of recidivism in terms of re-incarceration. We’re talking about the possibility that if Lois’ research is correct in terms of the effectiveness of correctional education and where do we go to from here, if we can impact the rate of return by 10, 15, 20%, through educational programs, or through contacts with the community, contacts with employers, contacts with family, again all the different programs we’re talking about, if we can have a 10 to 20% reduction in recidivism, it will substantially remake the Criminal Justice System, it will reduce the crime rate in this country substantially and it will reduce the burden on tax payers by billions of dollars. So this seems like an obvious win-win situation.

Steve Steurer:  Well it does and the problem I run into however is you can now convince most politicians, you know  they can be skeptical, “Well I studied via the prestigious RAND corporation that summarizes all the studies that have been done for years”, people will still doubt that but most people will say, “Okay, that’s great. It’s not the priority right now because we’ve got too much stuff going on in our public schools here and our colleges and students in the free world are just being burdened with tuition, why should they stick the money over here?” So that’s what we’re fighting now. We’ve won the battle for the most part, at least with people who are in the know like you and others who read and discuss this issue. We’ve won the battle that education and drug programs and such can reduce recidivism and help public safety, help drop the crime rate, etc.

It’s the priority now with the country in such a bad budget situation and tight dollars, to shift money over there. So technology can help us here because we can do a lot more, can reach a lot more with the same amount of dollars for technology than we’d have to spend on hiring a person to teach and only reaching so many people. So this is very exciting. We have another example here. I invite you to come, nearby here to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, I’m running this little project with Rob Green, the Warden, and Art Wallenstein the Director of Corrections. We have thirty tablets.

Len Sipes:  For Montgomery County. Yes.

Steve Steurer:  For Montgomery County. I’m at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility up in Boyds. Teachers are using the tablets, the students are being taught how to use the tablets in the class, taking them back to the cells, bringing work back, and the correctional officers helped me set it up. I didn’t go in with the teachers, I went in and talked to the officers. Well the officers were so enthused about it, that instead of having me come in and load software, Officer Powell was in charge of security, he said, “Teach me how to do it, I’ll do it. I got kids and they’re doing stuff at home and I can help this, I think it’s a good thing for these guys and gals.” And it was a co-ed class, we had men and women there, and it’s working out very well so they’re gonna get some more tablets.

Len Sipes:  But you know… go ahead, please.

Steve Steurer:  And this is a key thing for me. All of a sudden people around the county are saying, “Well, what are you doing with those tablets? Now they’re looking at them. But, you know, I think this is, a piece of this is getting correctional officials to feel secure enough to make these leaps and use technology, especially when one of their peers they respect like Rob Green or Art Wallenstein are doing it. They’ll take a look at it. We’re beginning to crack that with the Corrections Corporations of Americans saying, “We’ll buy these tablets now.” The Ohio Department of Corrections, Rehab and Corrections led by Gary Mohr, Secretary Gary Mohr. They’re buying them. They’re talking to their peers at the American Correctional Association Conference and showing off. Gary Mohr was playing with a tablet at the last ACA meeting. “Oh I hadn’t seen ‘em! Oh this is great!” And he’s showing the next guy at our table who might’ve been running New Jersey. So it’s word of mouth. It’s the security that you’re friends are doing it, your colleagues, that’s what’s gonna do this. I mean that’s what I’m hoping’s gonna do it and that’s my belief and that’s why I try to meet with all the folks and talk with them and get the word out.

Len Sipes:  Well everybody’s excited about this Steve, everybody, but I just want you to know that nobody here at my agency, the Court Services of Offenders Supervision Agency here at Washington DC, we just did a computer network, a virtual network to twenty Federal Prisons yesterday, where we spent the entire day bringing in people from Washington DC, instructing inmates from Washington DC at these various Federal Prisons, plus other inmates as to what their resources are in DC when they come home, what they can expect, what they should take advantage of, how do they get their GED, how do they get their plumbing certificate, how they take advantage of collegiate programs, where do they go to get their identifications, what are the roles of supervision. I mean we’re doing that now. We have our own television network of prisons throughout the United States. So this technology is possible, this technology is here now.

Steve Steurer:  Right, it is, and it’s a matter of letting it go deeper into the prisons, where it’s not just up on the correctional officers’ desk down at the end of the hall, and maybe on the teachers’ desk, but it’s in the classroom and you got a computer set up, and then you got a land going, but it can go out, be switched on and go out to the centers, into certain sites where there are a lot of resources available. And it’s a cost factor that people have to have money to do that. Montgomery County is better off than lots of counties and so they’re able to play around with this. They’ve got the community collage coming in with another tablet. I’m gonna have two tablets in the school. Technically, the school is run by the Correctional Education Association by the way, the Montgomery County brought us in seven years ago, when they were having budget problems and so they actually work for us.

And I go there. And so I wanna keep my hands on in this business. And so you know, it’s happening and we can get out there with it but we’ve gotta get the word out to more people and what I’d like to make a comment on real quick about your television – giving these inmates all this information [INDISCERNIBLE 00:23:40] hookups, remote hookups, and television and all that, that’s terrific and that’s been done for a long time. What we need to do on the other end of that, with the inmates, is to have tablets and things in their hands, or computers in their hands that are secure. Where they can go, start playing around with this. Teaching these guys how to use these things other than for phone calls and text messages, is absolutely necessary. You have to make people computer literate.

Len Sipes:  But the hope and dream of all of this is at your time, at your leisure, so the person can learn, go through a learning to read program from ten o clock to twelve o clock and then pick it back up again at three o clock to four o clock, and then pick it back up again at seven o clock to eight o clock, or it can be live instruction. I mean the possibilities here are endless.

Steve Steurer:  Yeah, and that’s what happens in Montgomery County. They don’t have enough tablets, ‘cause they have thirty, so the other students want them now. So these thirty people go back and they’re working in their cell. They can’t take it out in common areas, so they have to be, so it doesn’t get passed around like a toy or something; and they’re wanting to do this. They’re sitting in their cell, working on stuff, bringing it back the next day. I had one woman drop one of the tablets. She thought she broke it. She was so upset. I mean, can you imagine if we could’ve taped this, this woman comes back from her cell, she’s in jail for who knows what, and then she’s about ready to cry. She says “I dropped my tablet and I was doing my schoolwork,” and it turns out the tablet was not damaged and I guess she was probably afraid she was gonna have to pay for it too which we weren’t gonna charge her but everything’s fine. She’s happy. I mean they guard those, you know, when you give them the opportunity to start, showing them what to do, they get enthusiastic and then want more. You know, that’s what the story of good education is.

Len Sipes:  Well the enthusiasm, I think, is running across the board from anywhere from the inmate population to Washington DC to state capitals because I think some people will suggest that things are changing in terms of prison education, in terms of remote education within correctional facilities, because states are saying, “We’ve got to bring down our rates of recidivism because we can no longer afford the billions of dollars that we’ve been throwing into mainstream prisons.” So I think across the board whether it’s politically, I don’t care what state you’re in, every governor has told every correctional commissioner that they’ve got to do something to lower the recidivism rate because they can no longer afford to keep putting the same amount of money into their prison systems as they have within the last twenty or thirty years. So I think you, we may find ourselves surprised as to how well this will be accepted in the next five, ten years.

Steve Steurer:  Well I hope so and I really think in our business it’s a matter of peers convincing peers and then if they get all enthusiastic and they go to deal with the politicians and they’re well respected in their work, they can convince the politicians that they don’t have to defend why they gave a couple bucks for a piece of computer equipment to a prison and the public schools you know, some of them need some more stuff. So you know, we’ve got an attitude in this country to break through. I’m very confident correctional officials wanted to do more and do better. I think that they’re fighting their battles trying to convince the public, and trying to protect their jobs you know, sometimes because this is not a popular thing to talk about. So, we have to somehow turn the public mind around on this to accept this that we have to actually educate the people that we throw behind bars or they’re gonna come out and do the same thing or worse, and we can do this and you’re gonna have to be a little bit more liberal on your attitude about whether they should have some special thing like a laptop they’re working on or a computer or whatever, a pad. You know, so we’ve got a battle to do here.

Len Sipes:  I’ve talked to a lot of wardens, and I’ve walked through a lot of prisons and a lot of jails in my career and I’ve yet to find a warden that was not enthusiastic about correctional education because he or she will suggest that it keeps the institution safe, that inmates that are gainfully employed in educational or vocational programs throughout the course of the day, that makes for a happy, safe and sane prison. It’s the prisons that don’t have these things that become dangerous places. I would tend to believe that you would agree with me on that.

Steve Steurer:  I would agree with you on that. I think there are a lot of people who where we’ve started programs that that’s their main motivation; the wardens and you know, they wanna keep the place secure, they don’t want a lot of trouble. They don’t want guys fighting with each other and they like the inmates to be halfway content with the situation they’re in and then it’s easier to run the place and get something done. But I think there are a good number of these people who originally come from program areas themselves and up to the leadership as the warden or whatever, that also see it beyond that as a really good thing for the community, for people that can change, that they’re optimistic that some of these, fifty 50% of people don’t come back, not all of them have changed but at least you know, they’re not getting arrested. Hopefully not committing crimes but 50% are coming back, if we could drop that so it’s 75% don’t come back, I mean that’s going to require an investment. [OVERLAY]

Len Sipes:  And if you could go, if you could change the recidivism rate from 50% to 25%, that entity would win the Nobel Prize.

Steve Steurer:  Oh, it would.

Len Sipes:  It would save the state billions of dollars, save a lot of people from being victimized and it would be a win-win for everybody.

Steve Steurer:  Yeah, and I don’t know what the time limit is here.

Len Sipes:  Very quick Steve, we’re running out of time.

Steve Steurer:  We ought to take a look at what some of the other countries are doing, like Germany, and their attitude about what programs, what the program priority is behind bars. I mean those Americans that go and visit abroad say, “You know, we have a whole different political attitude” and I don’t know how we can change that but you know, lots of other countries, particularly in western Europe think about this stuff in a much different way than we do.

Len Sipes:  All right, Steve Steurer, is my guest today, Executive Director of the Correctional Educational Association www.ceanational.org. Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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