Several years ago, my colleague Jeff Freilich brought to my attention an app in the Google Play store called “Veterans in Crisis", created by veteran Jeanmarie Lerner. The app provided with the touch of a few buttons access to information and resources (food banks, shelters etc.) for veterans in times of crisis and inspired us as a perfect example of computational action demonstrating MIT App Inventor's use to create a socially beneficial tool. When we contacted her and asked her why she created such a tool she told us that after her deployments, it was really important for her to give something back to her fellow servicemen and women.
During our conversations, we also realized that we wanted to do something meaningful in prisons, especially for veterans, using technology to help incarcerated individuals become productive individuals.
Last year, we became aware of a fantastic MIT group —The Educational Justice Institute (TEJI), which does amazing work in prisons through the efforts of MIT staff and students.
Through TEJI, we learned about the exemplary reform activities of Maine State Prison (MSP), where residents are encouraged to pursue college degrees and given access to many tools to help them succeed in their studies.
With the guidance and support of TEJI and MSP admin, we recruited outstanding undergraduate research assistants (MIT’s UROP program), funded by a grant from the MIT Office of Experiential Learning. We set up a 5-week virtual mini-course called Introduction to Mobile Computing and Artificial Intelligence. Our development team lead, Evan Patton, and RAISE program manager, Jeff Freilich, visited MSP in fall 2022 to ensure that the MIT App Inventor technology would work seamlessly in the prison educational environment.
We recruited two exceptionally tech-savvy residents from MSP, Preston Thorpe and Cole Dykstra, who are deep into getting their college degrees. They trained with us on the curriculum in early spring 2023 to be our in-house mentors and helpers. Eventually, we were able to recruit a cohort of 18 residents. With our mentors’ help, the course ran with minimal difficulty.
Our remote course was delivered by MIT App Inventor, RAISE staff, and a fantastic group of MIT UROPs. MSP’s extraordinary facilities made remote lessons possible. In the course, residents learned how to use the MIT App Inventor coding environment to create mobile apps and explore AI topics such as image classification and building conversational AI agents. The residents’ reaction to the course was immensely positive. Here is some feedback we received:
At the end of the course, we decided to visit the prison to deliver the certificates of completion in person. Evan, Jeff, and I took the 3.5-hour drive to meet our students. The encounter was fantastic — we were received with tremendous enthusiasm and gratitude. We listened to our students' feedback about the course and their educational needs.
The certificate awards ceremony was very moving for all those involved. Our two wonderful mentors, Preston and Cole, are shown below receiving their MIT App Inventor course mentorship certificates:
Some of our students receiving their certificates (several became mentors for our next cohort):
The first cohort at Maine State Prison earned their certificates in spring 2023:
We look forward to continuing this project at MSP in the coming terms and — eventually — using it as a model for other prisons nationwide. Funding leads to make this incredible project sustainable and scalable are greatly appreciated.
Since writing this blog, we were able to train a second cohort at Maine State Prison in the fall of 2023. This exceptionally successful cohort was aided by five resident mentors who received training in the previous cohort. We hope the project becomes self-sustaining and mentors become teachers for the new cohorts at Maine State Prison.