Going straight to digital skills - providing laptops to offer prisoners tech skills

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 1, 2023
Coracle is taking no prisoners in its attempts to bridge the digital divide in the prison population.

James Tweed

One consequence of our increasingly digital society is that fundamental tasks, like applying for a job or getting a bank account, can only be done online. For some groups in society, they risk being left behind, unable to access basic services due to either lack of access to a device or lack of digital skills.

One of these groups is the current prison population, which numbers almost 90,000 people in the UK and two million in the US. By the time someone has served a five or 10-year sentence, technology will have moved on to such an extent that any digital skills people had before entering prison are likely to be outdated by the time they leave. 

There’s also an economic factor to consider. According to the UK's Ministry of Justice (MoJ), re-offending costs the UK £18 billion every year. Investment in education programs for prisoners with an emphasis on helping them into employment is fundamental to achieving a reduction in reoffending rates. 

One company trying to make this a reality for prisoners is digital learning provider Coracle. The company started out in maritime education in 2006 and five years ago branched out into providing laptops for prisoners. As Coracle founder James Tweed explains, delivering courses to people on board a ship or sat in a prison cell both have the common feature of no internet access. 

Coracle Inside currently provides about 1,000 laptops in 51 prisons today, and expects this to increase to 2,500 in 85 prisons by the end of March. 

Getting started

However, getting to this point hasn’t been easy. Tweed got some funding from Innovate UK after a pilot program with Cambridge University but getting further funding is a challenge:

We're effectively selling a service to government, to the MoJ and HMPPS [HM Prison and Probation Service], who are very strapped for budget. We’re working very hard with the MoJ and with the ministers to say, you are getting value for money on this and to prove that point by generating data.

There’s a major challenge here though, as a lot of the people Coracle is working with are still in prison serving their sentences. Tweed explains: 

The bit we need is when people start getting released, what happens to them afterwards. There's a case of saying what is behavior like in prison if you are offering a digital blend and what happens after prison. We are working to gather that data and make that case increasingly.

Coracle has some sponsors providing devices, and Tweed thinks this will happen more in future:

We're in conversations with a number of big-ish companies who we are definitely looking to get their support for this. It needs the Government backing it, which they're doing, in order for us to have those conversations in a meaningful way. The first step has been getting government buy-in and that I'm really pleased to say we've had.

Where sponsors provide the device, they then have to gift the license to the prison, so the latter has total control over who has that device for security reasons. As Tweed notes: 

We cannot have a situation where sponsors try to influence the prison on who gets the device.

Visiting time 

While the prison has control over who gets allocated the devices, Coracle then takes on responsibility for managing their use. Coracle staff go into all the prisons the firm is working with on a weekly basis to issue the laptops, help prisoners use them, do a security check on each device every week, and do any required printing. Tweed says: 

We're effectively providing a managed service. We're not deciding who gets it, but once the prison tells us who gets it, we are then looking after that whole piece. The prisons are desperately understaffed at the moment. If we didn't provide that service, it just wouldn't work, no-one would have the time to issue the devices.

To ensure the laptops are secure, there's no internet access, networking facility, camera or microphone. The devices run Chrome OS, and Coracle gets a lot of support from Google to ensure the safety, and they go through ongoing cybersecurity and pen testing. Tweed explains: 

We've come at this with a safety-first, security-first mindset to the point that it might limit functionality, but it is vital that that security is in place for the trust to exist in the system.

The ultimate goal is for Coracle to be providing laptops in all 120 prisons across the UK, and it’s purely budget constraints stopping further expansion. Tweed says:

There's a big social piece we've had to work on about convincing people that if you don't tackle digital literacy with people in prison, you were just creating this extra barrier. When people come out of prison – and can you imagine coming out if you've been inside for the last five or 10 years, how different the world is now - you are at such a disadvantage anyway, but if we make it even more difficult, it's an £18 billion a year problem for the country, this re-offending rate. Digital literacy is at the core of how we can change that.

With around 50,000 people getting released from prison every year in the UK, reducing the number who re-offend will help to reduce the overall cost of the prison system, but will also improve the outcomes for prisoners. Finding work is a key element in reducing reoffending but this is not the norm. Only 16% of people are in employment six weeks after leaving prison; after six months, this rises to 23%. 

Prisoners can access a wide range of content on the laptops, from Open University courses to reading schemes. The devices are issued to an individual depending on how long they need it for. If they're studying for an Open University degree, they could have it for between six to 12 months and it's theirs to look after during that period.

Coracle also makes devices available to inmates who haven’t signed up for specific education courses. Tweed explains:

That's really important because if you go into education in prison, you are giving up the opportunity of earning some extra money by being in a job in prison. There is a choice that people have to make, and perhaps that choice shouldn't be so black and white. So if you are in a kitchen, let's make a food hygiene course available. Whilst you're working in the kitchen, you shouldn't have to be electing to go just into education to do that.

The laptops are also proving popular for writing CV disclosure statements, understanding the release process and generating documents ready for release. 

The breadth of options means that where devices are in prisons, they’re all in use 90-plus percent of the time. According to Tweed: 

The demand is there. The prisons and the prison governors are desperate for more of this going on. There are waiting lists for people who are desperate to get access to being able to study.

The more devices available and the quicker prisoners have access to them, the better it will be not only for the individuals but also for society as a whole. Ultimately, Tweed wants to see systemic change around how people think about the prison system and what it is there for. If people are going to be sent to and then get released from prison, they have to be able to function in society when they leave, and digital skills are a core element of that.Tweed argues: 

The reality for offenders is most of them will become self-employed. But whether they go self-employed or get employment elsewhere, if you can't function in society, if you can't even buy a train ticket without a phone, or access universal credit, you've never filled in a form, the inevitable result is that that marginalizing of skills that we all take for granted will lead back to behaviors and communities that are not good. They will re-offend, that is just the reality. 

We've got to tackle this digital literacy issue and recognize that we all take it for granted. But if you miss out that whole step, it's a scary world.

My take

I investigated the role technology has to play in prisoner rehabilitation and employment prospects from a US perspective in late 2022, when I interviewed Next Chapter’s Executive Director, Kenyatta Leal. Next Chapter offers people who have been in prison a route into a tech career with an eight-month paid software engineering apprenticeship program. Similar to Coracle, the idea is to provide former inmates with realistic employment opportunities and avoid reoffending. Two organizations providing an invaluable service on both sides of the pond, and showing how digital inclusion programs shouldn’t- and don't have to- leave anyone behind.

A grey colored placeholder image