Over the last 40 years, the number of women in U.S. state prisons has increased by about 800 percent — more than double the rate of growth among men. But prison education and reentry programs in general are not well prepared to respond to this influx of women. In addition, over half of the 1 million women under criminal justice supervision on a given day have a child under the age of 18, so for them especially, it is crucial to have the tools needed to find jobs or to further their education once they leave prison. However, their time in the criminal justice system delays such educational opportunities and restrict them from using the Internet and other technologies. As the U.S. becomes more dependent on digital technologies, it is important for them to have opportunities to gain relevant knowledge and skills.
Our interdisciplinary team, composed of professors and graduate/undergraduate students at KU and UMKC and led by Professor Hyunjin Seo at KU, received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2019 to offer STEM education for women recently released from jail or prison in Kansas and Missouri. The three-year NSF project includes empirical research and evidence-based technology education. The technology education program for women in reentry is tailored for these women’s interests and needs as informed by solid research studies. Topics covered include standard office programs, website creation, information privacy, online security, basic coding skills. The program is designed to support the women in job applications and post-incarceration adjustments. This project has the potential to serve as a template for building evidence-based workforce preparation efforts in informal settings, and the concurrent online peer networking and app development may also facilitate adaptation for and scaling to other regions and other similarly digitally disadvantaged populations.