State of the art, secure cloud platform transforms SA prisoner education

Dept of Corectional Services SA

Each year 6,000 people pass through South Australia’s prison system – historically almost half of them have reoffended within two years.

It’s a statistic that, left unchecked, has a profound human impact – on prisoners, their families and society at large.

But South Australia’s 10by20 initiative is working to reduce by 10 per cent the rate of reoffending by 2020. A key component of this program is providing education that can enhance the prospects of prisoners, and help prepare them for a successful life on the outside.

For some prisoners that education might focus on raising basic literacy and numeracy; for others it’s about equipping them with the sort of digital capabilities that modern employers demand; for some it’s about getting access to vocational training and certifications.

Working with Microsoft, the SA Department for Correctional Services (DCS) has deployed a state-of-the-art cloud based computing network and educational software to help prisoners eager to learn to enhance their prospects on release.

The network is tightly configured, preventing prisoners accessing the internet as well as restrictions that prevent unauthorised communication or collaboration with one another via the network, ensuring the strict security that is necessary within correctional services.

The educational transformation doesn’t just help prisoners prepare for the future – it is proving to have clear benefits while they are still incarcerated.

In Port Augusta for example, a group of indigenous men have been using the computers to participate in spelling games, boosting their literacy and in the process transforming the way that correctional officers are able to engage with them.

Every student has access to state-of-the-art technology, which improves the likelihood of them being able to secure employment when they leave prison – because they are developing the skills which are now routinely expected by employers. It’s offering them a better chance of successful rehabilitation back into the community.

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” David Styles, Director, Knowledge and Information Systems notes

Secure cloud

In line with the SA Government’s ICT strategic plan the DCS opted for buy over build, selecting the Azure and Office 365 platform as the preferred education solution. Using the most up to date versions of Windows and Office is an important part in the plan to ensure prisoners gain the skills which are in high demand in the workplace and for vocational education

The cloud platform also ensures the scale and reach that is required by South Australia Correctional Services with up to 3,000 people spread across nine prisons that could be using the system at any time.

Unlike most other cloud solutions though, it has been essential to have the ability to tightly control internet access so that prisoners cannot directly access the internet, or communicate or collaborate with one another in an uncontrolled manner.

David Styles, Director, Knowledge and Information Systems notes;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. “

While the solution can be locked down to meet the DCS’ security requirements – it also enables consistency across all the prisons so that the same training materials and content are being delivered, which is critical for the Registered Training Organisation (RTO) requirements placed on the DCS.

For Henry Pharo, Director of Offender Rehabilitation Services; “The fact that we’ve got this centralised model now really changes the way that our RTO can operate, in terms of ensuring education materials are consistent and up-to-date and compliant with the requirements,” with all users also having access to the most up to date version of Office, consistent with that found in most workplaces.

Pharo adds; “We’re also using the system to support our training for numeracy and literacy, using computer-aided learning. 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.

“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 RTOs.”

“The fact that we’ve got this centralised model now really changes the way that our RTO can operate, in terms of ensuring education materials are consistent and up-to-date and compliant with the requirements, with all users also having access to the most up to date version of Office, consistent with that found in most workplaces”. Henry Pharo, Director of Offender Rehabilitation Services

Unique environment

While DCS considered solutions from a range of technology vendors, the Microsoft platform ticked all the boxes in terms of security, reach, resilience, state-of-the-art technology and value. In addition, Microsoft Services also worked closely with DCS on to design and develop a tailored solution for the unique security requirements associated with the prison environment whilst being extensible for future requirements.

Following an extended 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 who are accessing the system.

The ultimate goal for the project is to expand the opportunity for vocational training opportunities – creating an online campus that would allow prisoners to engage in tertiary-level studies from within the prison system.

In support of this goal, DCS is currently working to provide connectivity to a learning management system, so that prisoners can undertake tertiary-level vocational qualifications.

While that delivered inspiration to the DCS team the Microsoft solution goes a step further in that whilst it provides access to content in a controlled way, unlike static computers, it can also deploy continual updates from a centralised location significantly reducing the management overhead associated with the service.

DCS Project manager Toula Glezos says: “That evergreen capability was a really big selling point for us. The fact that it’s always going to be up-to-date, without having to invest more and more. “

Strong executive support and governance and a commitment to the goals of the project along with effective project management and close partnership with the Microsoft implementation team have also been key to its success according to Glezos.

It’s a further step towards preparing prisoners for the world of work that they will find when they step outside the prison gates – hopefully for the last time.

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