Prison Project Ready for Funding

Heather Erwin works hard. Not only does she work hard, but she works hard for a cause. “Be not simply good, be good for something,” Erwin said, quoting Henry David Thoreau. 

Erwin is the Prison Project Coordinator for the WiderNet Project. In her position, Erwin works tirelessly to develop the Corrections Off-line Education Platform (COEP), a branch of the WiderNet Project that is currently looking for funding.

The platform, designed for correctional facilities, is geared toward educating inmates and allowing them access to information without the security threats of access to the internet. “New York is putting in internet with limited access, but they could use the COEP system and avoid the risk,” Erwin said. The materials on the COEP will include items specific to the educational needs of inmates. Resources will encompass those for vocational training, GED, and re-entry skills--focused on information technology and information literacy.

It is necessary to allow inmates to have an access to knowledge. “With exposure to education, post-secondary in particular, statistics show that recidivism rates decrease from 60 to 15 percent,” Erwin said. Given the opportunity to access information and take classes within the correctional system, inmates are far less likely to re-offend.

The COEP is designed to look and feel just like the internet, allowing for skills gained by using the COEP to translate effortlessly to the internet upon re-entry to society. The WiderNet Project librarians and volunteers are collaborating with corrections educators and community advocates to provide materials within the COEP that will ultimately allow prisoners to obtain degrees, if they so choose.

“We’re working to put together specific course models,” Erwin said. “We need to lift activities to a level that is competitive.”

With excellent feedback from the experimental platforms located in three Iowa prisons and a halfway house, the COEP is ready to fulfill its potential by meeting all the information needs of the underserved, overcrowded populations of the nation’s prison system.

The project has a bright future, but it needs further funding according to Erwin. “We’re swimming in the right pools, and we will make a difference,” Erwin said.