What is SOIL?
The SOIL—Secure Online Instructional Link—project is the beginning of a movement to bring an educational internet connection to Alaskan prisoners. At the moment, no Alaskan prisoner has access to online education despite the growing importance of online courses in higher education. This lack of access has been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has brought to a halt almost all educational programming in Alaskan DOC facilities. If prisoners were able to connect to digital classrooms managed by the UAF e-campus, not only would they be able to continue their education during a pandemic but the educational possibilities available to them would increase exponentially. Eventually, a statewide SOIL-powered prison education network would allow men and women prisoners at facilities outside of Fairbanks access to the programs and educators made available through LION.
Why is online education ideal for prisons?
Furthermore, online education is the safest way to integrate prisoners into classes with other, non-imprisoned college students. Online college classrooms are more diverse than traditional classes with more nontraditional adult learners. For instance, a prisoner enrolled in the online section of Writing 214 will have the chance to safely engage with students of all ages and backgrounds from all over the state not as an orange jumpsuit but as just another peer seeking education. Bringing prisoners and traditional college students together in an inside-out classroom helps to create the social connections needed for students on both sides of the prison walls to foster social justice. The future of the inside-out classroom is through SOIL and Alaska has the chance to lead the nation with this innovation.
Why do prisoners not currently have Internet?
Unfortunately, the current, draconian laws in Alaska prohibit all internet use for prisoners and severely limit access to all other educational technologies. A current bill in the Alaska legislature promises to ease some of the restrictions on prisoner education. However, there is a lot to be improved in the language of the bill. Some easements on access to technology include education and visitation, and we at LION envision SOIL at the intersection of education and visitation.
What access to online access to prisoners in other states have?
Several other states are in the process of implementing pay-to-play tablet services that allow prisoners some access to online education. However, much of these services are based on limited interaction classes designed for mass consumption with as little instructor investment as possible. While this maximizes the number of prisoners able to complete online courses, it severely limits the quality of the education (and thus the success of the education in rehabilitating people and reducing recidivism). SOIL is about not only giving prisoners access to an online classroom but maximizing prisoners’ access to and interaction with college instructors and fellow college students.
What are the first steps towards making SOIL a reality?
In regards to SOIL, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity. The time is ripe for change. LION will be hosting a virtual think tank this spring (of 2021) to bring together DOC education coordinators, UAF educators and cyber security experts, legislatures and other passionate members of LION to decide on the immediate actions necessary to install an initial SOIL prototype.