Using technology to unlock prisoners’ potential

CHICAGO —Brian Hill lives an audacious mission: He’s out to save 2.3 million people from “The Jerry Springer Show.” That’s the population now held in America’s prisons and jails. And for Hill, the tawdry slapstick of Springer’s shout show exemplifies what’s wrong with prison: Prisoners have so much time on their hands that they fill with empty distraction—including hours, days and years of daytime TV—rather than anything constructive. That waste of human potential appalls him.

Six years ago, Hill embraced the task of inducing prisoners to reach for more than the channel selector. He founded Edovo, a Chicago-based company that equips incarcerated men and women with tablet computers. Those tablets help prisoners learn everything from how to read to what evidence supports the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins.

Hill presides over a staff meeting that includes (clockwise from bottom left): Mike Ebert, Sunjay Kumar, Nathan Burton Jr., Abby Raskin, and Joe Deng. Hill says he and his Edovo co-workers are acting on two drives. “One is entrepreneurial in nature,” he says. “The other is about helping people.”

He’s made headway. Now 25,000-30,000 prisoners have access to Edovo tablets each day. And the company is growing—thanks in part to its 2017 acquisition of a phone company that offers correctional facilities a way to pay for tablets, if administrators want Edovo tablets along with phone service.

Hill, 34, has long felt compelled to harness untapped potential. It’s a tendency that goes back much further than the 2013 founding of Edovo.

In 1995 and again in 1997, when Hill was just a boy, heavy rains brought devastating January flooding to Sacramento, near his northern California home. His family was a civic-minded Mormon crew, committed to community service, so it was no surprise that they were drawn to the flooded areas where people had gathered to help.

What did surprise Hill was that that turned out to be the only thing most people did—gather.

“You’d show up, and there’d be 50 people there. You’d realize when you got there that no one would take charge or know how to do it. Yet all this important work needs to be done. That’s where I realized at a young age that somebody needs to take charge. We need to get this done. So (I was) able to lead out at a couple of those events, just by virtue of being the only one who spoke up and started guiding people and leading people. That made me realize that we can make big things happen, but in order to make big things happen, leadership is required,” Hill said.

Motivated by meaning

Hill’s education and his more conventional, pre-Edovo business career helped him understand something about himself. He likes to compete and win in business, but, unless driven by meaning and mission, sales conquests are just a game. And he likes to help people, but any one person’s capacity to help is puny when weighed against the magnitude and urgency of the world’s problems.

“There are these two drives,” he said. “One is entrepreneurial in nature. The other is about helping people. When they come together, it’s a lot of fun. I can get excited about either for a short time, but if they don’t coalesce at some point…”

In Hill’s career, those drives merge in Edovo. The company shows strong growth, and the figures Hill is willing to disclose look promising. But Edovo’s numbers are only a shadow of its story. The more compelling part is being told by those who benefit.

At the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, in southeastern Michigan, 205 Edovo tablets are available for the 2,100 women incarcerated there. Nearly 900 of the women have registered accounts on Edovo tablets, said Tony Costello, assistant education manager for the Michigan Department of Corrections. The prison’s tablet users have racked up 140,000 hours of “productive” time—time spent on education or personal development, not just listening to music or watching movies or playing games. That’s an average of 159 hours per account holder since the tablets were introduced in mid-2017.

Shamekia Ballentine, 40, is doing more than her share to raise that average. Edovo software can display the number of lessons, courses (groups of related lessons), and certificates (sequences of instruction in a particular area, such as personal finance or customer service) that an account-holder has completed. Ballentine is proud of her Edovo record: 471 lessons, 101 courses, and 77 certificates.

(From left) Dominica Sims, Shamekia Ballentine, and LaKisha Turner, all inmates at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, Michigan, work together with their Edovo tablets in the facility’s library. The tablets have been available to the women at Huron Valley since the summer of 2017.

“I go on here to keep my mind freshened up,” Ballentine said. “I try to get knowledge in everything.”

She’s working on an associate degree in business and ultimately hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree. She’d like to own her own business on the outside, or at least be able to run one well. “If I can’t own my own business, I want to partner with someone,” she said.

Edovo builds its instruction around a simple incentive: Spend an hour working on material designed for education or personal development, earn an hour of entertainment—games, music or movies. The movies include dramas, action, comedies, and even movies in Spanish or with captions for hearing-impaired prisoners.

Although Ballentine likes the educational offerings, she’d like to see Edovo provide more “gender-specific lessons.” As someone who aspires to a business career after her release, scheduled in September 2020, she’d appreciate lessons that offer guidance on “how to be feminine in male-dominated areas.”

Some women at Huron Valley use the tablets for traditional academic work that has long been offered in prisons. But the tablets make it easier for them to pursue such education at their own pace.

Whitney Ritter, 28, completed all her GED courses on the tablet. As she looks back more than a decade at her high school years, she said: “I liked school, but I don’t think I put a lot of effort into it. I was there to socialize.”

After LaKisha Turner, 41, is released in May, she wants to get a job driving a delivery truck. She’s used the tablets to work on lessons that will help her earn a commercial driver’s license. One business course she found inspiring is called “Illegal to Legal.” In it, prisoners are urged to apply the planning and organization they used in crimes to operate legitimate businesses. “The teachers said criminals are some of the best businessmen,” Turner said.

Self-help lessons and courses are popular with nearly all of the inmates. Anger management is a staple in prison classrooms all over the country, but the women at Huron Valley say Edovo’s anger-management material is better. For one thing, the tablet courses go into much greater depth than the live classroom work at the state prison.

More important, it’s safer. In a social environment where juicy information sizzles through the grapevine faster than flame along a fuse, revealing weaknesses or vulnerabilities can be dangerous; it gives too much power to others. But when a prisoner works through sensitive material in an Edovo lesson, she does so safely, through reflection and introspection. It remains securely private.

Keri Bennett, 32, says the women are understandably wary of sharing too much in a prison classroom. “You can have an enemy in here, and she can use it against you. … Then they know how to push you,” Bennett said. With an Edovo course, she said, “I can write it all. I can be more honest. I can be more open. I’m giving, and I’m not being taken.”

Keri Bennett, here conferring with fellow Huron Valley inmate Valerie Mitchell (right), says she likes the fact that Edovo’s self-help courses allow for private reflection and introspection. Rather than sharing feelings in an open setting, she says: “I can write it all. I can be more honest. I can be more open.”

Tablets bring calm

Costello, the prison-education administrator, is an enthusiastic advocate for the tablets. He sees how well Edovo can engage prisoners, and he says it has a calming effect in the prison as a whole. Incidents of misconduct, such as being in an unauthorized cell or mouthing off to a guard, have dropped by 25 percent since Edovo tablets became available, he pointed out. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that two of the top four Edovo courses are titled Anger Management and Peace Education. The other two? Beyond Prison: On Parole and Probation, and Parenting.

None of this would surprise Hill. Edovo staff get lots of direct feedback from inmates who use the tablets—from requests to add specific movies to pointing out errors in material. “They’re an incredible (quality assurance) team for us,” he said.

Admittedly, it’s a different type of team from the ones Hill encountered in his pre-entrepreneurial days in the corporate world, including his four years at General Mills. That stint taught him a lot about rigorous business operation and analysis, and he enjoyed the people he worked with. But pitching processed food never really fed his spirit.

Jason Roy, an instructor at Huron Valley, discusses the Edovo lessons with (from far left) Amanda Kosal, Stephanie Irvin, and Marquetta Tarver. Roy is bullish on the tablet program. “It works,” he says. “It allows them to continue learning outside the classroom.”

“I couldn’t wake up every morning and feel good about increasing the volume of Totino’s Pizza sold in northern California,” Hill quipped. “In fact, I think I’ve got some sins to repay. In reality…we crushed some (sales) numbers. So more people were headed early on for diabetes.”

He left General Mills in 2012 to begin a combined MBA/law school program at Northwestern University. While investigating the idea of socially conscious investing, he connected with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and persuaded him to back an experiment to use TVs to provide educational programming to prisoners in Cook County Jail. The project launched in October 2013—and failed immediately.

“I’ll never forget that feeling,” Hill said. “It was an immediate recognition that we got it wrong. You could feel the tension in the room,” he said.

In retrospect, he sees several problems with using television for educational programming in prison. First, it presents a single stream of learning. If you want to learn about business for an associate degree, and it’s GED math day on TV, you’re out of luck. Second, Hill sees an element of groupthink that discourages inmates from tuning in on televised lessons.

“Individually, everyone says they want to learn. In a group, it’s not cool to learn anymore,” he said.

Hill said he also sees now that an important choice in prison is what to watch. Groups of prisoners typically vote on the daily viewing schedule, he said. Imposing one stream of programming deprives them of a decision in an environment already stripped of much autonomy. Finally, developing compelling television programming would have been prohibitively expensive as Edovo broadened its offerings.

Still, that early failure didn’t deter him. In fact, it only heightened his interest in improving the lives of prison inmates—perhaps because that interest was planted so early.

Hill isn’t just a busy entrepreneur; he also has a full home life. He and his wife Callie—shown here in the kitchen of their home in Evanston, Illinois—are raising four daughters (from left): Eden, 9; Riley, 7; Lauren, 5; and 2-year-old Macy.

In the mid-1990s, his father, Dave Hill, taught psychology in Folsom State Prison in California—a side mission to his “day job” of teaching psychology in community college. He brought excerpts of his prison students’ work home to share with Brian and his five siblings. The elder Hill always got students’ permission to share their writing, and he selected carefully to help his children feel some empathy for the prisoners without exposing the kids to inmates’ more disturbing experiences.

Cross-cultural lessons

Hill said his father’s purpose was to show his children the breadth of human cultures and the common humanity that binds them all. To deepen and enrich their Mormon faith, he’d have the family spend evenings with African visitors and Vietnamese refugees, view the protests of those he called “oppressed people,” and visit other religions’ sites of worship.

Brian Hill found optimism and hope in the family’s religious tourism. “It was important for us to choose,” he recalled. “My dad actually took us to other Christian denominations, Jewish synagogues, mosques. It was also so interesting and important to see how similar the faiths are, how hard so many people are trying to do good and the right thing.”

It seems completely natural that Hill would build his business on a foundation of social improvement. His father said he saw that relentless caring in Brian “from the time he began to talk,” pointing out that his son was always the child who would befriend a lonely classmate—and later become class president and try to make things better for the other kids.

Like his father, Hill is bullish on family life. He and his wife, Callie, have four daughters, ages 2 to 9, and Hill is puzzled by the reluctance of so many of his peers to marry and have children. He even argues an entrepreneurial case for families. He sees raising a family and leading a startup as complementary roles.

“Even to be married at my age seems a little uncommon these days,” he admited. “I think it’s too bad people don’t have that experience. I think it’s a big miss. It teaches you. It trains you. It teaches empathy. … You learn a lot of lessons really fast, and you learn not to take yourself too seriously. When you go home, it doesn’t matter what you might have done during the day. You’ve got to get the dishes washed, put the kids to bed and change some diapers,” he said.

“It trains you from an entrepreneurial skill set, both in terms of a willingness-to-take-risks standpoint and also from a figuring-things-out standpoint. It correlates pretty strongly with entrepreneurship. I mean, you build a family, it’s the biggest entrepreneurial experiment that you’ll do,” Hill said.

In late 2013, immediately after the failed TV experiment, Hill took a new path toward his goal of improving prison- based education. Instead of a single TV feed, he pushed the idea of delivering lessons via individual tablets. “Literally the next week” after the TV failure, “I went to Walmart and bought a tablet,” he said. A year later, the first tablet was delivered to prisoners, and the expansion hasn’t stopped.

Edovo’s growth got a boost in 2017, when it acquired a California company that sells phone service to jails. Hill already understood that in most facilities, money for tablets came from the sizable share of phone-service earnings turned over to each prison.

‘Disrupt that industry’

He remembers thinking: “If they’re using phone money to buy our tablets, we should just go and disrupt that industry, because communication is another critical part of rehabilitation.” And so he acted on that thought. “We bought a phone company to change that industry up,” he said. “That was really the procurement vehicle we needed. We’re actually selling communications contracts to correctional facilities. The dollars spent on communications are used on phones, but they also subsidize the tablet and the education software, whether you make a phone call or not.”

Including the workers at its Los Angeles-based phone-service subsidiary, Edovo now has about 85 employees, up from 72 in mid-2018. The company’s core revenue has doubled, year over year, for several years. There are now 25,000-30,000 Edovo tablets available for prisoners. However, that still leaves 99 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population without access to these tablets.

Hill—here conferring with software engineer Shane Fitzgerald (left) and Tyler Jennings, Edovo’s chief technology officer—is happy with the firm’s success, but that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied. “Every day we’re not out there working harder, there are people out there wasting their lives away,” he says. “These (tablets) can change the trajectory of lives.”

A bottom-line businessman might see 1 percent market share for a popular product as a boon: plenty of room to grow, with a near guarantee of doubling company revenue year after year. Instead, Hill regrets what he sees as a vast waste of human potential.

“For us, it’s more anxiety,” he said. “That means 99 percent of the people are still watching daytime television. Every day we’re not out there working harder, there are people out there wasting their lives away. These (tablets) can change the trajectory of lives.”

Hill cited a note from a prisoner who credited his successful parole hearing to Edovo. “That’s a person getting years of his life back. We’ve had people who’ve gotten back custody of their children. Not to mention learning to read!”

And, of course, they need to learn to make better decisions. That’s the heart of the Hill plan for prison reform.

“The key is their learning to make good choices, and their ability to learn to make choices in here isn’t good,” he said. “We’ve taken a self-identified poor decision-maker and put him in an environment where he makes no decisions. It puts them in the worst environment for their development possible. So what Edovo is striving to do is to give them choices and reward them for good choices.”


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