NC turns to app to help inmates prepare for release

The state will deploy tablets at several re-entry units in an effort to study the app's effectiveness


Zachery Eanes
The News and Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Nearly half of the people released from prison in North Carolina are arrested again within two years of re-entering society — a troubling statistic that the state is trying to chip away at with new technology.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is hoping a new app, called Pokket, will put a dent in the rate of recidivism by integrating it into the prison system’s new re-entry program for inmates. Prisoners would be introduced to the app — which helps them plan out their return to their communities — six months before their release date. They would keep using it for six months to a year after that.

Inmates in North Carolina will have access to a new app to help them plan out their return to their communities. (Photo/TNS)
Inmates in North Carolina will have access to a new app to help them plan out their return to their communities. (Photo/TNS)

2015 study of North Carolina showed that 49% of released prisoners were arrested within two years of leaving prison, and Nicole Sullivan, director of re-entry programs and services at NCDPS, said that correctional institutions across the country are looking at new ways to use technology to improve outcomes.

The state is beginning to deploy tablet computers at several of its re-entry prison units, where it will provide access to Pokket to a subgroup of individuals. The re-entry units are the final holding centers for people about to leave the system, putting them closer to their home communities and providing educational and vocational resources.

“Around 95% of these people are going to leave [prison] at some point,” Sullivan said. “They will be our neighbors. ... We want to afford them opportunities to learn new skills, so they will be in a better place when they leave our facilities.”

The Pokket app helps inmates map out what their first months after prison will look like, developing a schedule of what appointments they need to make and what resources are available in their local community. It also helps them track their own progress, download important documents and communicate more effectively with their probation officers.

The app is promising, Sullivan believes, because it makes an incarcerated person active in planning their life, rather than passively getting instructions from a state employee. Pokket is made by Acivilate, an Atlanta-based startup founded by Louise Wasilewski.

“We are trying to move away from staff making a plan for a person and hoping and praying they will use it,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the focus on re-entry programs has intensified in the past decade. There is more of a realization that it’s a critical component of the justice system, and she noted that the state, in general, has approached corrections differently since it enacted criminal justice reform in 2011.

Gov. Roy Cooper told an entrepreneurial conference earlier this week that reintegrating prisoners into the community is crucial.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to try and help them reassimilate and get back into society,” Cooper said at the NC IDEA Ecosystem Summit. “... We don’t want them to go back to doing what got them in prison to start with. We want them contributing to society.”

The pilot program will start with 500 people in prisons in Wake, Orange, Caldwell, Davidson and Lincoln counties. Those counties were chosen because they have robust re-entry councils ready to supply resources.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot, North Carolina research institute RTI International will conduct a study of the app’s effectiveness. The pilot will only include male prisoners.

Christine H. Lindquist, a senior research sociologist at RTI International’s Division for Applied Justice Research, said RTI will evaluate statistically the effectiveness of DPS’ implementation of the app.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, will last five years — though it will have some preliminary findings after three.

Lindquist added that North Carolina could prove to be an example for the rest of the country considering use of this technology.

“It is timely because this will be the first empirically objective test of what outcomes other departments of correction can expect to see,” Lindquist said. “It will inform the field.”

The use of smart tablets is a hot conversation within corrections, Sullivan and Lindquist said, because they provide solutions to staffing and space shortages. Traditionally, education for prisoners means finding time and staff to fill a classroom full of people. Providing lessons, books and other material on the tablet can be more efficient.

“We live in a technology age and they don’t have those tools while they are incarcerated,” Sullivan said. “We want them to be more digitally savvy when they come out.”

The tablets can only be used in a common area and there are strict limits on what they can be used for. They cannot be taken to individual cells and there is one tablet for about every seven prisoners in the re-entry step.

Once the prisoner is released, he will need access to a computer or handheld device to keep using Pokket, which could hamper its effectiveness.

“We are really going to be working to find how well this tech is going to work with all affected users,” Lindquist said. “It may be that re-entering individuals don’t trust the technology. They might be reluctant to use it.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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