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A Kansas program helps women in prison keep up with technology so they can get jobs after release

An image of a job-search website.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service

Inmates in jails or prisons can fall behind on technological advances. A KU program is trying to help.

People in jail or prison can't keep up with technology. A program for inmates in Kansas and Missouri will help them learn job skills.

TOPEKA, Kansas — When Shawnttis Hernandez first went to prison, Gmail didn’t even exist.

Neither did the Apple iPhone or the job searching website Indeed. She had a Nokia flip phone and the USB flash drive was just a few years old.

Hernandez was sent to the Topeka Correctional Facility in August 2003, and she has been out for about nine months. Technology and the internet came a long way during the two decades she was incarcerated. Many internet terms became ubiquitous, but she missed all of the innovation.

“I didn't even know what a link was,” Hernandez said in an interview.

The world around her changed so much it was harder for her to get a job. In the early 2000s, you could walk into a business with a resume in hand and ask for an interview. In 2023, that process has generally moved entirely online.

“When I first got out and I had my first break down, I said, ‘Why can't I just go into this place and fill out an application?’” she said. “They said, ‘Oh, things aren't like that anymore.’ I was not told that.”

Researchers at the University of Kansas are trying to bridge that divide. The National Science Foundation gave KU a three-year, $1.6 million grant to help women transitioning out of incarceration learn about technology.

The program aims to help former inmates by offering resume building, Google and Microsoft Office classes. But it also includes more advanced courses on coding and cybersecurity that could help women get stable jobs in tech.

Hyunjin Seo is helping lead the program. She’s an Oscar Stauffer professor and associate dean for research and faculty development in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at KU.

“We want them to be able to transition into society. The society that is increasingly dependent on digital technologies,” she said. “At the core of our project is supporting women's employment.”

Stable employment makes someone less likely to commit new crimes and land back in jail or prison once released.

Seo said this isn’t the first time KU won grant money to run this project, but the new influx of cash will expand the program. The training will now reach women in the final months of their sentence and not just people who are already released. In the next three years, KU hopes to train around 600 women.

The program is offered in jails and prisons in both Kansas and Missouri. So far, correctional facilities in Shawnee, Wyandotte, Johnson and Douglas County have agreements for programing.

Participants go through a hybrid education model, with some courses offered online and in-person at public libraries. The courses are broken down into multiple phases and students get a certification of completion from the KU Center for Digital Inclusion once they complete a phase.

Seo said that’s beneficial because some participants have little to put on their resume. This program will do more than just teach former inmates how to use computers, she said, it gives them marketable job skills to put on a resume.

Hernandez, the former inmate in Kansas, said she was not able to take many classes while in prison that would help her once released. Prisons might try to prioritize people closer to release for certain classes, which means inmates serving long sentences often wait for years.

Hernandez said in the decades she spent in prison, some reentry programs only came toward the end of her sentence. And they felt rushed.

“They kind of wait till your last 90 days to crunch and do all these things, and you're overwhelmed,” she said. “I did everything I could to apply myself to get these types of necessities that people need when they get out.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.