Brian Hill, cofounder of Chicago-based Jail Education Solutions (JES), knew their product, Edovo, was making strides when a corrections officer in a Philadelphia prison piloting their product pointed out that the common area completely silent. Inmates were hunched over tablets, quietly taking classes that ranged from remedial math to Christian studies.
“You hear that boys,” Hill remembers the officer said. “That’s the sound of success.”
Edovo is an tablet-based platform that brings education to prisoners as a means to reduce recidivism, both to improve life post-imprisonment and decrease skyrocketing incarceration costs. After going through Impact Engine and Philadelphia accelerator FastFWD last year, in October JES launched a pilot program at an 8,500 bed prison system in Philly. Between the accelerators and pilot program, JES fine tuned their product and are preparing for a wider release, offering a glimpse at the solution for the 50 percent of offenders who return to jail after being released.
“We came into Impact Engine thinking we were going to replace daytime television,” said Hill, who attended Northwestern for his
JD/MBA. “It was through that experience and the pilot that allowed us to move into a much more self driven learning platform that leads to tangible outcomes.”
Hill explained that usually in jails, the extent of the intersection between technology and education is a small TV in the corner of the common room that plays daytime television. A 2013 report from RAND found that inmates who received education while in prison were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders.
Bridging those ideas, initially JES provided educational programming through television, but they found it was tough to engage with large numbers of inmates through just one piece of hardware. Instead, they realized tablets offered a more personalized and engaging way to ensure educational material was hitting home, and in turn reducing recidivism.
Their platform, Edovo, uses content that is either created by the in-house curriculum team working with experts, licensed from outside sources (such as GED prep materials), or curated content (such as documentaries or career training courses). Completing courses is incentivized through entertainment options that can be unlocked once inmates complete a set number of “value added” programming. Inmates rent the tablets for about $2 daily through commissary.
One of the challenges was creating content that could suit the spectrum of inmate learning abilities, pointed out Hill. With that in mind, there are video-heavy courses that may focus on developing a trade or skill, all the way up to college coursework.
“Impact Engine was incredibly helpful in helping us from an investment standpoint and a mentorship standpoint,” Hill said. “It helped us identify clearly how we want to help the market and maintain our focus on impact.”
JES had a chance to test out their product on a large scale in Philadelphia prisons last fall. “When we launched our product in a facility, we [saw] more education and access than ever before,” said Hill. “But what’s even more exciting is that we see inmates gravitate toward
the most valuable content.”
The most popular classes included two math courses, a reading and language arts course, a cognitive behavioral therapy course called “thinking for change,” and a Christian studies course. “I couldn’t hand pick courses I would rather them focus on,” said Hill. “If there was ever a question about [inmates’] motivation to learn, you can consider that question answered.”
“We saw a behavior management component we didn’t expect,” said Hill. “Take a population that is milling around all day, this [changes] the dynamic because people are now heads down, quiet, engaged in the classroom.”
Since working in Philadelphia, JES has expanded to a jail in California and just launched with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. In July, they will launch in a Pittsburgh-area prison. The next steps for their platform include making courses more goal oriented to ease the transition back into the real world (guiding inmates through steps on how to get their next job or get their GED).
“We’re seeing a tech boom happen in corrections and this is the very beginning of it,” said Hill. “This is the time for growth.”