Opportunity Faculty Fellows: Breaking the criminal justice 'revolving door' with digital skills training


When offenders reenter society after a period in jail or prison, they often find technologies have changed rapidly - even in a relatively short amount of time. They may be unfamiliar with new devices, social networks, types of touch screen interfaces or terminology. 

It’s not just a question of formerly incarcerated individuals feeling uncomfortable. The technology gap can have serious consequences. To find work, people returning from jail or prison will likely need to search the Internet, and even many entry-level jobs now feature online applications and tests. If they find employment, most jobs will require using some technology like typing or navigating a touch screen device. People can get in trouble and end up back in the system for parole violations if they don’t understand how to navigate potentially threatening interactions with people on social media. And they might become the victims of online scams and frauds, which returning citizens might be unfamiliar with. 

“There is this weird notion that people don’t need technology skills unless it’s a high-skill job,” said professor Bianca Reisdorf.

Reisdorf and professor Jennifer Hartman are planning to run a one-week, intensive digital skills training class for offenders who are scheduled to leave the Mecklenburg County Jail in the next 90 days. Their goal is to give returning citizens a baseline of digital skills, including how to find information online, use email and send attachments, and use social media appropriately, then follow up with them to see if they have better outcomes and are more likely to avoid the “revolving door” that can lead back into the criminal justice system.

“If we don’t give people the skills to be a functional member of society, there is a higher likelihood that they are going to go back to prison, and that’s bad for them personally as well as expensive for society,” said Reisdorf.

The initial project will include two digital skills classes with 30 male and female participants in fall 2019. Participants will be surveyed and followed, to track both concrete and “soft” outcomes, at one-, three- six- and twelve-month intervals after release. 

“We also expect the training to improve subjective well-being as participants can more easily find information related to health care, housing, and community initiatives. We will systematically evaluate the effects of these classes on returning citizens’ digital skills and outcomes,” the researchers wrote in their description of the project. “We will combine quantitative survey methods with qualitative in-depth interviews to examine returning citizens’ experiences in using digital tools.”

If they find that the digital skills training has a positive impact on returning offenders, Reisdorf and Hartman hope to eventually expand the program to serve a greater number of people. 

- By Ely Portillo