The South Australia Department for Correctional Services (DCS) has the ambition of reducing prisoner re-offending by 10% come 2020, and with around 6,000 people passing through the state's prison system each year, DCS currently sees almost half of them re-offending within two years.
What DCS has identified as one of the key blockers to rehabilitation is education and skills development. In an attempt to lull the re-offending rate, DCS is giving those that are incarcerated the opportunity to learn and develop skills that are "real" and can be used in the outside world.
When bringing technology into an environment like a prison, there are many challenges, such setting up internet and having devices in a controlled environment, so instead, it had to stand up something different.
Speaking with media on Monday, Microsoft Australia national technology officer Lee Hickin said that working with the tech giant, DCS has deployed a cloud-based computing network and given inmates access to educational software.
The DCS platform uses Azure and Office 365 for education, with the cloud platform being scaleable so it can accommodate the 3,000 people that could potentially be using the system all at once.
According to Microsoft, the network is tightly configured so prisoners are prevented from accessing the internet. There's also restrictions that prevent unauthorised communication with one another via the network.
"One of the keys for us was security. So, unlike any other educational institution, our students are offenders. And, we, therefore, have to restrict their ability to communicate. Firstly, externally to the institution but also, restrict their communication with each other," DCS director of knowledge and information systems David Styles said.
The announcement follows a pilot which saw the solution deployed at four sites by October 2018. The rollout has been extended to a further two prisons with two more to go. Currently there are 472 prisoners accessing the system, with the ultimate goal being to expand the vocational training opportunities and create an online campus that would allow prisoners to engage in tertiary-level studies from within the prison system.
DCS is currently working to provide connectivity to a learning management system so that prisoners can undertake tertiary-level vocational qualifications.
Microsoft believes that having access to the tech to build their skills, prisoners have a higher likelihood of securing employment when they are released.
DCS is also using the system to support numeracy and literacy training, with DCS director of offender rehabilitation services Henry Pharo saying the organisation is using computer-aided learning to make that happen.
"Previously, it was very much paper-based. We've been able to get some good applications to teach people maths, English, right down to the English as a Second Language level," he said. "So, they're our two main focus areas and, we're also looking at expanding the system to be able to use a student learning system on the same platform. And, I suppose, that will then be supporting vocational training, delivered through other [Registered Training Organisation requirements]."