N.C. prisons embrace digital learning to combat inmate idleness, foster skill development
The blend of technology and education aims at equipping inmates with job-ready skills, amid ongoing 40% staff vacancy rate
By Avi Bajpai
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The top official in charge of North Carolina’s prison system said Monday that electronic tablets that have been distributed to prisons across the state have become a valuable and productive resource for inmates.
Speaking at a conference focused on prison reform, N.C. Secretary of Adult Correction Todd Ishee highlighted the rollout and implementation of the tablets, which provide inmates with educational courses to help them learn and develop skills they can use once outside of prison, as a success.
The tablets allow inmates to access thousands of academic, vocational and self-improvement courses as part of an initiative officials launched last year, called Hope University. Since the program’s launch in April 2022, inmates have used the tablets to complete nearly 260,000 full, interactive courses, as well as more than 3.3 million learning resources like videos, audio recordings, and readings, Ishee said.
Courses are offered in more than 170 fields, according to the Department of Adult Correction, but Ishee said the most popular have been the ones that can provide people with tangible skills that could help them get jobs after prison.
At the top of the list was a training course offered by a culinary institute, and introductory courses to commercial driving, carpentry, electrical studies, legal studies, and plumbing — fields that Ishee said were less likely to care about an applicant’s history and were more concerned with whether they could do the job well.
Movies, messages and electronic filing
On top of the educational offerings, the tablets have movies and music that inmates can pay for. They can also use the devices to send messages to family through a prison communications portal, but that also costs money.
Ishee said the introduction of tablets in prisons was initially met with skepticism by wardens and staff, but that they came around on the program once they saw the impact it was having. And on top of learning, the tablets have also helped address another problem, which Ishee described as idleness.
“People sitting around with nothing to do is a challenge, and it usually results in bad stuff,” Ishee said during the day-long conference organized by NC CURE, a nonprofit that works on prison reform. “What this tablet program has done is cut that idleness category down significantly.”
Related to that, Ishee said, the department has directed wardens in all 54 of the state’s prisons to help more people obtain a high school education or vocational training. The department’s goal is to triple the number of GED and HiSET, or High School Equivalency Test, exams, and vocational certificates that inmates achieve by July.
Eventually, the tablets could be used for other things too, like electronically filing a grievance.
Ishee acknowledged that grievances currently filed on paper can get misplaced, and said that Kimberly Grande, the director of the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board, was working on the program to move the filing process to an electronic one. Electronic filing could be tested as a pilot program with female inmates first, Ishee said.
“Every stroke of the key you make on a computer, somebody can tell you did it, so we won’t have lost or missing paperwork in our grievance procedure,” Ishee said.
Ongoing high staff shortages
At the same time as officials invest in the tablets and other programs, they continue to struggle with persistently high levels of staff shortages. Ishee said the department is working to cut down its current vacancy rate of 40%, and said a new human resources team was helping to find and hire employees.
Still, he said, the large number of open positions has been an “anchor” that is holding the department back, and at times impacting different programs and services.
Ardis Watkins, the executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said pay and respect for corrections staff are at the root of the staffing issue, which affects both staff and inmates.
“If I don’t think you hire quality personnel to have my back, I’m in a real fix when something goes down,” Watkins said. “And if I am in a prison, because I am serving my sentence, I need you to hire quality personnel, the highest quality you can get, because I’m not going to feel safe from them or from anyone else I’m in this prison with, unless I feel these are folks that are really good caliber, responsible people, who care.”
“And if I can get a job, which by the way I can, at a fast food restaurant, not even managing it, and make more than I can going into work being responsible for the life and well-being, and we hope, rehabilitation of a fellow human being, we’ve got a problem,” she added.