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Tablets Offer Educational Opportunities In Prison, But Quality Varies


Getting an education in prison can make all the difference for inmates, even reduce their chances of going back after they are released. But it is hard for prisons and jails to offer classes. They don't have enough space or money, oftentimes. That is where tablets come in. Students behind bars can use tables to take online classes, do research, read e-books. There is a lot that new technology can't fix, though, as NPR's Jenny Gathright reports.

JENNY GATHRIGHT, BYLINE: There is virtually no classroom space at the D.C. Jail, and there's not a lot of money to hire more teachers. But 31-year-old Keith Sweptson doesn't need a traditional classroom.

KEITH SWEPTSON: Right here, I'ma (ph) show you...

GATHRIGHT: Sweptson is holding a tablet, the tool he's been using to get his GED. Before he got to jail last year, he had a ninth-grade education.

SWEPTSON: I work tabs, so this - you know, you could tab a lot of things. See? They have Khan Academy.

GATHRIGHT: Sweptson pulls up a screen full of different tabs, like a Web browser. It's how he saves his assignments and instructional videos.

SWEPTSON: And it gives you - it's like a teacher online, just, like, on a chalkboard, like, right - it shows you examples and stuff like that.

GATHRIGHT: D.C.'s Department of Corrections is expanding its programs so more students here can use the tablets to take college courses, get their GEDs, learn English. Tablets don't require much space. All you need are charging blocks and a few tutors who can offer students one-on-one help. They're also relatively inexpensive to implement.

Quincy Booth, the head of the D.C. Department of Corrections, says many students here in D.C. like learning on the tablet because it gives them more control.

QUINCY BOOTH: The tablets allow people to learn in their own pace and in their own way, as well as it allows people to learn privately.

GATHRIGHT: But Booth knows that there are advantages to in-person instruction.

BOOTH: We know that tablets can't be the be all, end all.

GATHRIGHT: That's why local professors come and teach here, and the jail offers hands-on vocational training.

BOOTH: At the end of the day, you have to have personal touch, personal connection. So we have to have a mixture of offerings.

GATHRIGHT: But with limited space and limited resources, more and more prisons are offering online education. They're partnering with schools like Ashland University, based in Ohio. They have programs in as many as 50 jails and prisons across the country, including here in D.C. It's a highly scalable model. If you can deliver a class online to one student, why not hundreds or more?

MICHELLE TOLBERT: Because it is so scalable, it can quickly grow without really knowing whether or not it's a high-quality education.

GATHRIGHT: Michelle Tolbert researches adult education at the think tank RTI International. She says correctional facilities need to be critical consumers when it comes to tablets. She says there hasn't been enough research on the quality of the programs these tablets are providing. And plus, many of the vendors who supply the tablets aren't primarily educational organizations.

TOLBERT: Most of them have a history of supplying other services and facilities, like music and videos and pay phones. And they see education as a new market and a new way to make money.

GATHRIGHT: In West Virginia, for example, a tablet company is charging inmates by the minute to read e-books. Tolbert says the tablets do have a lot of potential, though, because they can help incarcerated students have experiences that students on the outside might take for granted.

TOLBERT: Think about it. I mean, we all do our research online. If you don't have access to online resources, it's very hard to do a research report for a college classroom.

GATHRIGHT: And this is not a typical college classroom. New technology like tablets can't solve problems inmates are having with their basic needs at the D.C. Jail. The D.C. Department of Health has cited the jail numerous times for problems like leaky roofs and walls, improper handling of food and a failure to maintain acceptable room temperatures. Booth told NPR the jail works to address issues as soon as they hear about them.

As for Sweptson, he says things in the jail changed for him after he got his tablet and got the chance to move to a specialized education unit.

SWEPTSON: Big difference - on the other units, it's a lot of problems walking around.

GATHRIGHT: Sweptson says he's less stressed here because when he's bored, he can pick up his tablet and read a book or watch a TED talk. His studies have also gotten him thinking about the next steps in his education after he passes the final test he needs for his GED.

SWEPTSON: I never had college on my mind before I came here, but now it's like it's on my mind. Like, I really think I'd do good in college.

GATHRIGHT: After he's sentenced, Sweptson will leave this jail and get sent to a federal prison. Whether he has access to college and what form that access takes depends on the federal institution.

Jenny Gathright, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOPENGUIN'S "BRANCHES BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.