Skip Navigation

Unlocking Education for Incarcerated Populations: A Conversation with Jessica Hicklin

The story of UnlockED, a 2023 Learning Solution, is one that springs from personal grit, born in the confines of incarceration, and nurtured by an unyielding belief in the power of education. Speaking to the founder, Jessica Hicklin, we delve into the journey that birthed an initiative aiming to redefine the landscape of incarceration.

From chalkboards to coding: The birth of UnlockED

Imagine starting life imprisonment at age 16. That was the reality for Hicklin who was sentenced in 1995. But amid the desolation, a spark was ignited. Education became her beacon of hope, prompting the realization that knowledge could be the key to both personal and collective change.

Teaching began modestly within prison walls for Hicklin, utilizing textbooks and chalkboards. However, as the dynamics shifted and the need for innovative educational access grew, a revolutionary idea was born. Encountering Khan Academy's early content sparked a vision—to create a similar platform tailored for prisons. Despite lacking coding expertise, Hicklin embarked on a journey to learn this skill without having access to the internet, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become UnlockED.

Founder Jessica Hicklin

UnlockED mission and challenges

UnlockED Labs initially focused on deploying learning management systems (LMS) within prisons. But its mission evolved, seeking to bridge fragmented educational systems within correctional facilities—as the team received the Mellon Foundation grant while working closely with the coding bootcamp of the University of Washington, Saint Louis.

However, navigating compliance and policy landscapes proved challenging. Working with states to provide hybrid education opportunities led to concerns around safety and security of the carceral space. Not to mention concerns around the hardware itself being considered dangerous and apprehension around unfettered internet access. Upon returning home, Hicklin observed the substantial evolution of technology within the education sector, particularly the proliferation of various open-source free LMS. Recognizing that a mere adaptation of existing systems for incarcerated individuals would not suffice, she delved deeper into uncovering the underlying reasons for the educational disparity within prisons. This investigative effort unearthed two primary challenges.

Firstly, it became evident that most correctional facilities lacked the educational infrastructure typically associated with universities, impeding access to education. Hicklin remarked, "Even with the intent to educate those within, equip them for careers, and integrate them into the workforce, the means simply aren't available." Consequently, the pivotal role of UnlockED expanded to aiding universities and corrections departments in deploying the requisite technology to bridge this educational gap.

Secondly, Hicklin recognized a deeper discrepancy in teaching methodologies. While some systems relied on traditional tools like chalkboards and textbooks, others embraced technology. However, the absence of synchronization among these systems hindered the establishment of best practices. She explained, "Currently, disparate educational methods inhibit our ability to discern why83% of released individuals in the United States are rearrested within a decade, while 17% are not. Understanding this demands an analysis of what aids successful reintegration, a task impeded by fragmented data stored in educational silos—sometimes, quite literally, within filing cabinets."

UnlockED team

Consequently, UnlockED underwent a strategic pivot, extending beyond the provision of an LMS to actively supporting infrastructure development and technology deployment. This shift culminated in the development of a platform that facilitates integration among various LMSs. For instance, if the Department of Corrections offers a mental health course and different universities utilize disparate LMSs like Canvas and Blackboard, the platform now seamlessly integrates and consolidates data from these diverse sources. Users accessing UnlockED benefit from a unified interface that fosters a consortium-style educational experience, transcending the limitations posed by disjointed systems.

Education for impact beyond incarceration

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. These high rates are partly caused by recidivism: more often than not, those who are released from prison eventually return, notes the Educational Justice Institute at MIT. Yet, with 70% of the team composed of formerly incarcerated individuals across the United States, UnlockED has expanded learning programs to six prisons in Missouri and New York State offering insider knowledge of what prison systems are most concerned about. About 60 students are or have taken courses from Washington University through the technological systems in Missouri, working towards these degrees. “In New York, we support all the Hudson link students in two institutions…so about several hundred students,” adds Hicklin.  

Hence, for UnlockED, success isn't merely about deploying technology; it's about creating real impact by expanding educational access and correlating education data with tangible outcomes like reducing recidivism. Collaborations with partners tracking parole information pave the way for analyzing the connection between education and post-release success; ensuring individuals have accomplished sufficient skills to prove to a parole board and to start building their desired lives outside of prison.

Recent accolades have validated UnlockED's innovative approach. From winning prestigious competitions like the Milken-Penn GSE competition to securing recognition from the London School of Economics and the Justice Innovation Prize, UnlockED's model is gaining widespread acclaim.

Hicklin with singer John Legend

Towards a collective future

Looking ahead, UnlockED envisions a future where community-driven solutions redefine incarceration and rehabilitation. Its call echoes out to philanthropists, technologists, policymakers, and individuals passionate about societal change. 

UnlockED embodies not just an organization, but a philosophy—a belief that education can dismantle the walls of incarceration and pave the way for a transformed future. As Hicklin aptly concludes, "The failure of corrections is a community problem, and UnlockED envisions a community solution."

Learn about ways you can support innovators like Hicklin here

to Top