Can prisoners receive quality education without access to the internet?

By Madolyn Smith | 15 Aug 14

For anyone who hasn’t been to an Australian school in the past 10 years: E-learning is a thing. All schools have access to the internet and increasingly it is compulsory for students to own internet-enabled devices. Internationally, the utility of the internet for educational purposes has been recognised by the Council of Europe in 2008 and extensively by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies points out in their publication Internet in Education the internet was invented specifically for didactic purposes. With over 1.95 billion pages indexed on the Web, the internet provides access to a colossal amount of information.

Yet, in spite of its potential for learning and education, internet access in Australian correctional facilities is overwhelmingly limited and variable. In New South Wales for instance, there is no individual access to computers and the use of shared computers is restricted by the facility’s ability to provide supervision. Conversely, prisons in Victoria do provide computers in cells, but do not allow internet access.

Even when correctional facilities are resourced sufficiently, education is often interrupted by release or transfer and, according to UNICEF Australia’s Director of Advocacy Tim O’Connor, this represents a real human rights concern for juvenile offenders.

“Australia has an obligation, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure all children achieve the right to an education, including children in detention centres. While efforts are made to ensure education programs are enacted in juvenile detention centres. These efforts are hindered by a lack of a national approach and disruption caused by transfer or release,” he said in an email interview with Right Now.

The accessibility and quality of education in prisons is not just a human rights matter; society as a whole benefits from increased educational attainment by the prison population. Both the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry Seen and heard: priority for children in the legal process and the NSW Auditor-General’s report Prisoner Rehabilitation: Department of Corrective Services stress the importance of educational attainment in breaking the cycle of crime.

International case studies also back up the correlation between education and reintegration with society. In an interview with ABC Radio National, Brett Collins, co-ordinator of prisoner activist group Justice Action, points to the example of Norway, which has long provided internet-enabled computers in cells. He argues that access to computers means that “people are much more effective when they are released from jail, less likely to reoffend, have skills, and have a chance to use their time in their cells properly”. Significantly, the recidivism rate in Norway is 20% compared to 43 per cent in NSW.

While it is impossible to prove unilateral causation between internet access and social inclusion after release, the fact is that education and skills training will make anyone more marketable. Yet, considering only 14 per cent of Australian prisoners have completed Year 12 compared to 63 per cent of the general population, it begs the question: why hasn’t more been done to ensure that inmates are given the greatest capacity to pursue the learning opportunities presented by the internet?

The answer is usually security. Unfettered access to the internet could allow prisoners to virtually transcend the prison’s walls and engage in unlawful activities – and this is not without precedent. In the United Kingdom, for example,  The Guardian reported that unlawful Facebook pages had been used by prisoners to taunt victims. Legal efforts in Australia to rehabilitate prisoners through third-party administered social media sites have also been blasted by victim support networks, even though prisoners have no direct access to the internet. As a result, policymakers are often forced to make a trade-off between the value of education and public safety.

But perhaps they no longer have to.

A new project pioneered by Dr Helen Farley at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) and funded by the Australian Government Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP) could eliminate these technology-based security concerns. Entitled “Making the Connection“, the project builds upon the success of an Office for Learning and Teaching-funded program called “From Access to Success“.

Unlike traditional distance learning models, “Making the Connection” utilises Stand Alone Moodle (SAM) technology, a learning platform that allows students to access USQ’s virtual StudyDesk in computer labs irrespective of whether or not there is access to the internet. SAM will be supplemented by the use of tablet computers that contain course materials and resources to be accessed in cells – eliminating the need for supervision.

Although the project is still being trialled, it provides a real promise for the future of education in Australia’s prison systems. Students will be able to access USQ’s Tertiary Preparation Program, Indigenous Higher Education Pathway Program, a Diploma of Arts, and a Bachelor of General Studies. Furthermore, should a participant be released or transferred, they are also able to continue their studies, albeit only through paper-based materials for the time being. Even so, the opportunity for students to continue their studies is unrivalled in Australia’s corrections system and, according to Dr Farley, could make a real difference in the reintegration process.

“What we are trying to do with both the Office for Learning and Teaching-funded From Access to Success project and the HEPPP-funded Making the Connection project is to help incarcerated students have an equivalent experience to those students outside of prison, but also to give them the digital literacy skills they will need to enter the workforce or into further study upon release,” Dr Farley explained.

At the moment, the project is running at the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre. It will be rolled out to ten more facilities before the trial ends in October 2016. Preliminary results are promising, and the project’s predecessors have already demonstrated that portable learning devices and Stand Alone Moodle are viable educational tools. Only time will tell, but it seems that the stage has been set for an approach to education in prisons that does not need to make compromises between security and quality.

Madolyn Smith is from Sydney, Australia. She is a consultant at an international organisation and also contributes to crisis reporting projects at the European Journalism Centre.