Southern Collective Guest Writer(s) 2 – Katie Owens Murphy and Chloe Allen, Restorative Justice Lab @ UNA

As news about the predatory practices of for-profit tech companies circulates, many higher education in prison (HEP) programs— including ours— have been trying to find tech solutions that allow them to remain autonomous from providers that have become notorious for hidden fees, sudden price hikes, and inefficient tech support. In this blog entry, we would like to offer the ways in which we have negotiated technology for our program so that it might benefit others who are navigating similar challenges.

The prison where we facilitate our programming was a “pilot” site for Securus, a company that disseminated “free” tablets in 2020, just as the Coronavirus pandemic was causing institutions— including this prison— to shut its doors for two years. These tablets contain a number of additional fees, including a $5/month charge to individualize it, or “make it mine” — a necessity for saving any stored or purchased data— as well as “content delivery fees” of $.99 per purchase. Securus promoted its tablet by emphasizing its library catalog, which was free of charge, but the content of this library was obscure and outdated, consisting mostly of 18th and 19th century texts.

Because our university contracts with Dell, we opted to circumvent the tablets and order a class set of laptops. Our ITS department was able to customize our order in accordance with prison policy, including disabling the cameras on each laptop and loading them with software specific to our needs. The laptops will be stored in a lockable charging station in a supply closet at the prison. While this was a pricey choice, we see it as an investment in the sustainability and autonomy of our program– and in our students. Laptops, which feature full keyboards and screens, are important for computer literacy and will allow students to gain some familiarity with technology in advance of their release. Students in our program will practice navigating these laptops during lengthy study hall sessions that we are holding every other week for the same duration as our class time (2.5 hours). 

We’ve also had to find creative solutions for learning management systems given the prison’s lack of internet access. We wanted to develop something that would mimic our on-campus system, Canvas. Our university’s Educational Technology Services (ETS) department introduced us to BlueGriffon, an HTML editor that is available for free. The BlueGriffon software allows us to build a series of static web pages that can be downloaded to an external hard-drive and then accessed later without needing the internet. These static web pages allow students to access course materials–including videos–offline. And although building web pages may sound complicated, the BlueGriffon software is relatively user-friendly. It allows the user to choose between manually coding the pages using HTML or using the Wysiwyg feature. Wysiwyg, or “What you see is what you get,” isn’t as exact as writing and editing the HTML code, but it is a lot easier for those with little to no coding experience, and we have found it to be sufficient for creating the static web pages. We then worked with our university’s Open Educational Resource (OER) team to build a BlueGriffon page that had open access content– free educational material that does not violate copyright law– for our HEP program, which is focused on restorative justice. The result is accessible multimedia content that includes close-captioned videos demonstrating circle processes as well as graphics that visually represent the more complex and theoretical topics that organize the course. 

We also asked our university library for help with a solution for library and research access given our inside students’ inability to access the internet. Our library liaison quickly located JSTOR’s “Access in Prison Initiative” and put us in touch with project manager Stacy Burnett. JSTOR offers three options for prisons that do not allow internet access; we opted for their third option, a thumb drive that contains all of JSTOR’s article abstracts cataloged in a way that is searchable. The thumb drive can be downloaded onto each of our laptops. Best of all, this initiative is free of charge to participating programs.

Technology is often seen as a barrier in HEP programs– and it certainly can be. But it also makes possible programs such as our new Zoom course on restorative circles, which we are able to offer at the women’s prison for the first time. Because the women’s prison is on the opposite side of the state from our university, we have never been able to deliver in-person programming there; but we have partnered with a nonprofit organization supporting mothers at the prison that has agreed to co-sponsor our circle workshops by lending us the use of their Zoom equipment. Circles are challenging to conduct virtually and raise, once again, problems that require solutions. We’ve ordered conference microphones, for example, to be placed in the center of the room so that we can hear each participant. We also rely on graphic seating charts that simulate where and how we should be sitting in circle formation, were we meeting face-to-face. Still, we are receiving very positive feedback about the workshops and are able to reach a facility that is too geographically distant for in-person facilitation. 

Technology can be harnessed in ways that enhance or enable rather than frustrate our programs if we work with intentional partners who help us to increase access to HEP in ways that are inclusive, ethical, and sustainable. We would like to thank the Laughing Gull Foundation for the grant support that paid for our program’s laptops as well as the University of North Alabama’s library, OER, and ETS/ITS departments for helping us to develop solutions for our program’s unique tech needs.

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