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KU leading program to boost digital literacy among women leaving incarceration

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Hyunjin Seo, KU School of Journalism & Mass Communications

LAWRENCE — The number of women incarcerated in the United States has steadily increased in recent years. In Kansas, from 2000-2019, the rate rose by 60%, outpacing the national average. University of Kansas researchers are building an evidence-based education and policy advocacy program for enhancing digital access and literacy among Kansas women transitioning from incarceration to support their employment, health care and meaningful participation in social and cultural activities outside the criminal justice system.

KU’s Center for Digital Inclusion has received a three-year, $249,857 grant through the Kansas Health Foundation’s Kansas Digital Equity and Inclusion Collaborative program to strengthen partnership between researchers, departments of correction, public libraries and other organizations in northeast Kansas to reach women before they leave incarceration and continue training afterward to aid a successful transition.

Information technology skills are essential to apply for jobs, communicate with health professionals, assess quality of online information and to take part in countless areas of society. Yet, those skills can be difficult to obtain while incarcerated, and many women continue to lack access to the internet or web-capable devices upon their release.

“For this project, all community partners will be closely involved in identifying ways for better supporting digital access skills among marginalized populations, in particular women transitioning from incarceration,” said Hyunjin Seo, Oscar Stauffer Professor and founding director of the Center for Digital Inclusion in the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications, who is the grant’s principal investigator. “We’ll all work together to discuss and come up with a framework for offering technology training to women nearing release. That training will continue post-release as well.”

Previous work involving professors Hannah Britton of political science and women, gender & sexuality studies at KU and Megha Ramaswamy of population health at KU Medical Center has focused on helping women make the transition after they have been released. The new collaborative will work to boost success rates by working with women before their release date arrives. Partners will design ways to offer reentry technology workshops at correctional facilities before release, as well as conducting systematic assessments of digital access and skill needs of the target population to develop more evidence-based and tailored education in related areas. Other collaborative efforts will include organizing public forums dealing with structural barriers and societal biases facing formerly incarcerated women.

“As a Kansan, I think it is particularly important to think about what we can do to support this population’s technology learning and employment and ultimately to reduce rates of recidivism,” Seo said. “Our partners in departments of correction have been essential in helping with recruitment and allowing us in their facilities to work with women who are about to be released. Public libraries are very important players in digital inclusion, and they are wonderful partners in boosting digital literacy and have made library resources available to our participants, both online and offline.”

In addition to boosting digital skills for attaining employment, the program includes sessions on critically assessing quality of online information, ways of protecting themselves from misinformation and phishing attempts.

The project is focusing on northeast Kansas, as four of the state’s five counties with the highest rates of incarcerated women are located in the region: Douglas, Johnson, Shawnee and Wyandotte. However, successful interventions and programs developed through the collaborative could potentially be the base for similar programs on a much wider scale, Seo said.

Collaborative partners:

  • Kansas City Kansas Public Libraries
  • Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library
  • Lawrence Public Library
  • Johnson County Department of Corrections
  • Shawnee County Department of Corrections
  • Office of the Sheriff of Wyandotte County
  • Women’s Employment Network
  • PCs for People
  • Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
  • Rose Brooks Center

The grant is managed by KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research.

Participants in previous work to boost digital literacy and related skills upon release indicated that the training was helpful but could be even more effective when started before release. Others expressed a desire to help women in similar circumstances.

“We’ve been pleased to see how many women want to give back and help others in a similar situation to theirs,” Seo said. “Through the grant, we’ve been able to hire two women who completed digital skills certificates from our existing program to serve as digital navigators, to train women about to be released and continue advocating for them in their transition.”

Photo credit: Hyunjin Seo


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