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Detainees at the District of Columbia’s Department of Corrections have become certified cloud practitioners, knowledge that upon release will provide a sustainable wage and may help fill the IT skills gap.
Fifteen inmates at the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections (DOC) recently earned Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud Practitioner Certification through a pilot program that supports virtual learning.
DOC opened the pilot to residents of a housing unit who are part of the department’s existing inmate education program called LEAD Up! Nineteen signed up and 15 sat for the exam, earning an 85% pass rate after completing the 10-week course.
One major reason for the pilot’s success was the use of off-the-shelf tablets that ADPS, a career-readiness platform for justice-impacted individuals, modifies down to the operating system to be secure for corrections departments. Every DOC resident has access to the tablets 11 hours a day every day. They use facial recognition so that when someone logs on, their content pops up. For the pilot participants, that meant access to the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Course on AWS Builder, which has more than 500 free courses and learning paths, self-paced labs and practice exams.
“We enabled the program through our learning management system,” said Arti Finn, co-founder and chief strategy officer at APDS. “Because it was a hybrid course, we had Amazon employees onsite at the facility but also recorded all the sessions using a virtual classroom and connected folks to Amazon employees that way, too,” she said.
“I don’t want to gloss over the capabilities that the tablet had,” said Amy Lopez, former deputy director of college and career readiness and professional development at DC DOC, who helped launch the pilot program. In addition to accessing courses—both live and on demand—“they could also message their instructors—all of those things that normally are not available to incarcerated students that really made the class a success…. I don't know if it could have been successful without it. Having those modalities on the tablet really put it into a professional mode where the students had a real shot at earning that certification.”
DOC also made a computer lab available so that students could study. One student became the cohort’s de facto tutor and would message program leaders when he needed more information to help sort out a problem. Program managers would then load that additional info onto the platform, making it accessible via the tablets to all the students.
What’s more, ADPS staff could monitor students’ progress remotely and intervene when they were struggling with a concept. That meant sending in a DOC tutor or talking to AWS about creating another module to load onto the platform.
“Without the tablets, you’re looking at staff time to Xerox pages and find stuff and then try to make sure it gets in and it doesn’t get thrown away,” said Lopez, who is now chief executive officer of Past the Edges Consulting. “When you have the tablet at your disposal, you can put all of the learning information that a student needs on the tablet for them to use.”
Another aspect of the program was teaching soft skills that would help newly certified students apply and interview for IT jobs when they’re released. Career and interview coaching was already part of DOC’s offerings, “but the fact that they were able to use a virtual classroom to do mock interviews was, for many students, the first time they’d ever done an interview,” Finn said.
DOC is one of the country’s largest municipal jail systems with an average daily population of about 1,700 inmates. Part of its mission is to provide “meaningful opportunities for community reintegration,” according to its website, and it has offered other programs to that end, such as a 12-week computer science course taught via Zoom by Ph.D. candidates through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Educational Justice Institute.
Research has shown that inmates who receive education and skills training have lower rates of recidivism than their peers, and tech companies are taking note. In 2021, Google started the Grow with Google Career Readiness for Reentry program, which funds nonprofits that provide digital literacy support, including Fortune Society and The Last Mile, according to a Wired article.
Typically, correctional institutions offer vocational skills training, but the cloud certification is game-changing, Lopez said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We offered some job training,’ it’s another thing to say, ‘Somebody can get out and get that job,’” she said. “It’s not just a living wage, it’s a sustainable living wage…. It’s just one of the best trainings I’ve ever been able to implement anywhere, and I’ve been in several systems.”
Plus, this approach can help fill the rapidly increasing number of available IT jobs, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will grow by 15% between 2021 and 2031, creating almost 700,000 new jobs. The median annual wage for these workers was about $97,000 in May 2021, more than twice the median annual wage for all occupations.
As part of reentry support, participants in the pilot are expected to join DOC’s LEAD Out! post-release employment program. Through it, they will continue to have access to ADPS tablets and content, plus hundreds of AWS digital courses.
DOC began planning for the program with AWS and ADPS in 2021. Finn said a second cohort will happen, but she is not sure when—“hopefully by the fall.” The companies are working now to scale the program so that more DOC inmates can sign up and to expand it to other locations.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
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