How a Chicago startup is changing the lives of millions of prisoners with tablet-based education

Carlin Sack

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It’s fitting that Chicago, which has gotten international attention for its high homicide rates, is home to a startup that is taking the jump with innovation in the prison industry. Jail Education Solutions is aiming to lower recidivism rates (rates at which former prisoners are re-arrested for a similar offense) with tablet-based education for inmates; their pilot is launching in Philadelphia next month.

Co-founders Brian Hill, Andy Brimhall and Adam Hopson were JD-MBA students at Northwestern when they realized they might have a solution to the nation’s 50 percent recidivism rates: education.

“We saw inmates watching TV as behavior management; that’s not a formula for success,” Hill said. “Research shows that educations prevents recidivism.”

Hill and his team then spent nine months testing ways to replace inmates’ TV time with better content. What ended up working, they realized, is content with adaptability to individualized learning styles and that has short-term and long-term rewards.

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The rewards part of the tablet-based content is key, especially for inmates because the rewards serve as justification for an education (something inmates might get made fun of for otherwise). “Everybody responds to rewards in some degree,” Hill said.

As the 20-person team is iterating their rewards model, they are picking up advice from Chicago tech leaders with expertise in the space (like Ryan Jeffrey of Belly) thanks to connections made through Chuck Templeton’s second Impact Engine class.

Although JES is launching its first pilot in Philadelphia in July, it is still a Chicago born-and-bred company. The idea was actually first developed in partnership with Chicago’s Cook County in January 2013, where it planned to first launch.

So after its successful Philadelphia launch next month, JES will make its way back to Chicago prisons as a part of a seven- to eight-jail expansion across the country in the next six to eight months. In each jail, JES plans to launch a pilot phase with 50 to 200 tablets rented directly to inmates (so it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything).

By end of next year, the goal is have over 1,000 tablets rented, which amounts to JES reaching 50,000 to 100,000 people.

Though JES may seem like a non-profit because of its mission and its industry, there are a handful of Chicago investors behind the company. Right now, JES is closing a $1.5 million seed round with many of the same Chicago investors from their previous angel note. Overall, JES has raised over $1 million just from Chicago, Hill said. The Chicago Community Trust, Pritzker Group, the MacArthur Foundation and the Impact Engine have all been supporters since JES's inception.

“Innovation in Chicago as a whole was instrumental; Chicago made it possible for us to play and grow and launch,” Hill said. “It’s a messed up area of our policy. Not a ton of people are thinking about the space that’s for sure. Chicago has a willingness to innovate in a very ugly space. There are no questions that this company’s success is because of Chicago.”

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Tom Jacobs
Great story, great venture

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