Learning for Civic Action Challenge



Justice-impacted developers building open source technology to increase education access in prison, while simultaneously creating scalable data infrastructure to support decarceration efforts.

Team Lead

Jessica Hicklin

Solution Overview & Team Lead Details

Our Organization

Unlocked Labs

What is the name of your solution?


Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

Justice-impacted developers building open source technology to increase education access in prison, while simultaneously creating scalable data infrastructure to support decarceration efforts

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

When our CTO, Jessica Hicklin, realized that she would go up for parole, she found herself facing her release with no work history, no education, no job, and no real employable skill set. Until she taught herself how to code, she had access to nearly zero formal education or self-betterment opportunities.  

Most incarcerated people in the United States cannot access consistent, quality education. Of the 2 million people currently incarcerated in America, over 60% of individuals in prison are functionally illiterate. Over 68% of males in prison do not have a high school diploma; women in prison have even fewer program offerings than men, facing gender-based discrimination and harassment from prison staff. 94% of students in prison don’t have access to higher education.

Many prisons are rurally located, without internet, and most most lack a consistent educational record-keeping system, further hamstringing reform. The infrastructure to bring people educational resources or to figure out what works in a correctional environment simply does not exist. 

Prevailing paradigms within the criminal justice system hyperfocus on sanctions and surveillance, rather than cultivating a sense of purpose and self-sufficiency or a capacity for rehabilitation and reintegration. When incarcerated individuals return to society, they increasingly face both legal and informal barriers to becoming productive and active citizens. Lack of education, whether it is basic education, civic education, higher education, etc, is one of the biggest barriers to civic participation and understanding. As most prisons lack the ability to deliver quality education, incarcerated individuals are not just unable to read, attain degrees, or gain skills to find a suitable job upon release, but many are unable to envision themselves as part of a greater community. Even more, lack of education is highly correlated with recidivism outcomes: people who earn a bachelor’s degree behind bars have a recidivism rate of around 5%, compared to over 65% nationally that are rearrested within 3 years.

Today, our challenge is transforming returning citizens from outsiders into full participants in civil society. Legal barriers vary from state to state; even if legal barriers are completely eliminated, however, returning citizens still need the skills and abilities to think critically, to communicate across lines of difference, and to perform the duties of citizenship.

What is your solution?

UnlockED is an open-source education access and management platform for prisons (think Coursera meets Canvas, adapted so that it can be run on a wide range of hardware, with or without the internet). By providing sustainable education infrastructure in prisons, we can promote social and economic mobility and invest in better outcomes for our highest-need populations. Through education, incarcerated individuals can access the tools that they need to build a positive flywheel towards achieving their goals and successfully reintegrate into society upon release. 

UnlockED has three major components:

1. Self-Paced Curriculums

Prisons already provide some level of technological access to incarcerated individuals, like tablets, computer labs, or laptops. Whether it is through laptops that they can bring back to their cells or the computers in their classrooms, students can use UnlockED to access a wide range of content on their own time, including but not limited to basic education, higher education, vocational education, and mental health and personal wellness programs. 

We built a customized server application that enables devices to easily sync with UnlockED’s courses when they go from offline to online. UnlockED integrates with existing learning management systems and can facilitate content from third-party providers like Coursera and edX; when they connect online, incarcerated individuals have nearly the same access to educational content as those of us on the outside. 

2. Course Management

Correctional systems and incarcerated learners need a path towards formalized course and degree completion. UnlockED enables correctional staff and prison educators to facilitate their classes and programs, via remote live instruction or in-person. Course administrators can manage student enrollment, assign students tasks and projects, assess their students through quizzes or tests, and award certificates and degrees for completion. 

3. Achievement and Data Tracking

UnlockED gathers reliable data on program enrollment, engagement, and efficacy. Management of that data is essential to both the individual and the institution. UnlockED facilitates keeping comprehensive records of achievement, enabling individuals to tangibly see what they have accomplished while incarcerated and prove their accomplishments to a parole board. Correctional administrators can track longitudinal outcomes, prove what works, refine policy and target both public and private investment.

Here is a link to our platform demo: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bU9Rtzvj-9qnCX_4YJmFmWLshGH4qYct/view?usp=share_link

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

UnlockED serves currently incarcerated individuals in the United States. Over 2 million men and women in the United States are incarcerated, with many facing daunting prospects upon their release. Each year, more than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons. After 1 year after release, the unemployment rate for returning citizens remains around 25%. Returning citizens without an education are more likely to be unemployed after release; they are also significantly more likely to recidivate. Individuals who did not complete high school were rearrested at the highest rate—60.4 percent. 

Much like our cofounders, many of these individuals lacked opportunities for education or self-betterment while incarcerated. Only 35 percent of state prisons provide college-level courses, and these programs only serve 6 percent of incarcerated individuals nationwide. Research shows that education can restore incarcerated individuals’ sense of self-esteem and social competence, with a directly proportional relationship between their self-esteem and social competence scores and each level of education attained. 

Additionally, a lack of digital literacy is a huge barrier to many incarcerated people re-entering society. For individuals who have served decades in prison, learning to use technology adds additional layers to the stress of reintegration. Some individuals have barely interacted with computers, let alone the Internet. Access to digital technology is necessary for success in a world that many have never seen. 

There is a decisive value to providing education to incarcerated learners: it clearly reduces recidivism and promotes positive life outcomes. Our solution, UnlockED, vastly improves their access to education. Through education, we can restore incarcerated individuals’ ability to become active members of their communities, both during and after their incarceration.

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Our co-founders, Jessica Hicklin and Chris Santillan, were both originally sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. While incarcerated, they had access to few formal education or self-betterment opportunities and took it upon themselves to create their own, from volunteer GED offerings to an award-winning victim empathy course. While inside, Jessica and Chris taught themselves how to code, without the internet, and built the first version of UnlockED to solve the education access problem they witnessed firsthand. 

Both while incarcerated and post-release, Jessica and Chris were supported by an experienced team with diverse skills. Haley Shoaf, an educator and technologist with over a decade of experience in both prison education, and scaling social impact organizations, helped them start Unlocked Labs inside. Peter Tosto, and Mark Bauer, veteran product leaders from NCR & Workday respectively, have supported the design, deployment, and scaling of the UnlockED product. Paul de Lucena, a software developer with 15 years of experience at Blackboard scaling learning management technology currently supports team growth and product refinement. 

At Unlocked Labs, we believe that the people closest to the problem are very often the closest to the solution. Jessica and Chris started building UnlockED while they were incarcerated, receiving live feedback from their peers and prison staff. Today, Unlocked Labs’ development team consists mostly of formerly incarcerated individuals, employing and engaging currently incarcerated individuals in product design and evolution. In addition to building a category-defining toolset, we are building a new type of organization, one that intentionally brings incarcerated people in each state we work in into dialogue with prison officials in co-designing solutions to address critical challenges. 

A great example of how we engage stakeholders is our recent pilot work in New York. As we implemented the UnlockED pilot, we also met with incarcerated community leaders, in particular three individuals at Sing Sing who had been teaching themselves how to code inside, and had particular interest in the deployment of technology within the justice system. During initial piloting, these individuals conducted user interviews, and actually designed an improved homepage for the application based on what they observed. We were able to take this idea and build on it to improve the experience for all incarcerated users in the future. In Missouri, we had incarcerated developers lead user interviews with staff to create a shared perspective about challenges the tools needed to solve. 

Local context matters in system implementation, as does bringing together stakeholders across perspectives. Codifying this in our design and implementation process helps ensure empathy and sustainability.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Provide access to improved civic action learning in a wide range of contexts: with educator support for classroom-based approaches, and community-building opportunities for out of school, community-based approaches.

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

St. Louis, MO

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model that is rolled out in one or more communities

How many people does your solution currently serve?


Why are you applying to Solve?

Over the last couple of years, Unlocked Labs has made significant inroads in the development of our platform, in our engagement with state governments and education providers, and in securing funding from philanthropic organizations. That being said, as a newer organization working in the prison education and government technology space, the Solve community could provide a game-changing opportunity for our organization to expand our impact and build a community of practice.

Primarily, we are excited about the opportunity to connect and potentially partner with members of MIT and Solve’s networks. Tapping into the knowledge of experienced navigators of the government technology space could only help move our conversations across the finish line with correctional system stakeholders. While we are in exciting conversations with a number of states, the long sales processes and highly regulatory nature of large bureaucratic governments prove to be some of the biggest barriers to our organization. Solve’s network has experts who can help us develop culturally sensitive solutions that take into account the specific needs and challenges of different state governments and correctional systems, and provide support and resources to help us build partnerships and collaborations with local stakeholders.

Connecting with other members and establishing partnerships that can not just accelerate our expansion, but help us further build a community of practice around prison education. After participating in the Fast Forward fellowship, an accelerator for tech nonprofits, we were told that the exposure granted through the MIT Solve network would be invaluable to our work. One of our broader goals is to socialize stakeholders around the value of our work and to engage technologists and educators in the development of best practices for deploying open source educational infrastructure in prison. By increasing awareness, we can garner stronger support from correctional administrators, educational providers, funders, and society at large regarding the transformative impact of high-quality education in prisons, which will empower incarcerated individuals to gain agency over their lives and futures.

As we pursue an open source model, there is no greater opportunity than MIT Solve’s community. Technology development has long been spurred by the open source movement, and now more than ever, technologists are looking for meaningful ways to put their skills to use. By connecting us with experts in different technical areas, such as engineering, data analytics, or software development, we can develop UnlockED into a robust prison education platform that can scale across a diverse set of correctional systems, and restore the ability to participate in society to incarcerated individuals across the country.

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Financial (e.g. accounting practices, pitching to investors)
  • Legal or Regulatory Matters
  • Product / Service Distribution (e.g. delivery, logistics, expanding client base)
  • Public Relations (e.g. branding/marketing strategy, social and global media)

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Jessica Hicklin

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

Prior attempts were made to increase education access in prison, but none seem to stick long-term. Prison phone companies provide tablets to incarcerated individuals, but these devices are not designed with education in mind, and are also costly and unreliable. One company charges prohibitive fees for educators to use their platforms, and another charges incarcerated individuals by the minute to read books on their tablets. Edovo and other social impact tablets are a good education-first step, but fall short and don’t connect students to live instruction or work with higher education providers. California, started to built their own custom infrastructure solution, but the vast majority of states simply do not have the resources, expertise, or bandwidth to prioritize this work. 

Our team knows the challenges that they need to solve for they experienced them firsthand. Prisons are difficult environments to access for user testing and design, but our team gives us an inside look into the carceral experience. Because we center lived experience in our program operations and product development, our team has the most potential to succeed in expanding education access through technology where others have encountered pitfalls.

More broadly, as for-profit prison phone companies have dominated the prison technology market, we hope that our work will start to shift the prison education space towards a model that primarily benefits the incarcerated rather than profit from them. For that reason, one of the core values of our team is to be open by default, and we are building all of our technology systems as non-profit and open-source licensed. We are intentionally ensuring that all of the underlying technology upon which our tools are built are also open-source. We work to provide the tools to expand access to education in prison to correctional system partners at cost, in a way that allows them to sustain efforts in a way that works best for them, without vendor lock-in.

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

We envision a world in which access to education, and the infrastructure needed to facilitate that access is a public good. Our long-term goal is to ensure that every incarcerated individual in America has access to the high-quality educational opportunities they need in order to reach their full potential and reintegrate successfully into society. 

By the end of the next 12 months, our goal is to be in a position to execute a statewide pilot of UnlockEd in a new state, particularly innovating around our approach of involving currently incarcerated individuals in context-specific design. Particularly, we see ourselves working with either the state of Oklahoma or Maine, who have expressed interest in our approach. After implementing a pilot program at one selected facility in a state, we will develop and later execute a strategic plan for scaling UnlockED in every institution across that state and syncing with their statewide systems, in collaboration with the state department of correction. Every individual in that state correctional system should have access to UnlockED. 

Further, in order to ensure that UnlockED can be utilized at scale, we need to complete an updated version of the UnlockED software platform that is written in a modernized web development framework, integrates with third party software systems and databases, and meets best-in-class security standards. For the next year, we aim to finish the revamping process of UnlockED, so that the process of uploading content and manage courses is seamless for education providers and administrators, like universities, and accessing and engaging with learning materials is simple for students. 

Over the next five years, having learned from the deployment of UnlockED in several different-sized states,  we want to be in a position where we can target national expansion and enable students across the country to access our platform. State correctional systems and the federal correctional system should be able to use our platform, decreasing their reliance on the current monopolies on prison technology and able to further reinvest tax dollars into the community. With a state engagement manager, a solid state engagement strategy, and proven case studies and materials, we will set the stage for any state or prison education provider nationally to take action toward implementing these tools in their ecosystem.

Additionally, we orient these our goals around not just through increased levels of educational attainment and reductions in recidivism, but also through reductions in the number of life years spent in prison. We hope our work starts the normalization of positive record keeping and tracking of credentials to tell a story not just of who doesn’t go back, but of the immense community benefits returning citizens can offer when properly resourced and prepared. As state legislatures debate and start to pass bills related to “earned” and “good time” credit—reduction in sentences for those who engage with rehabilitative and educational programs and demonstrate good behavior—we envision UnlockED playing a critical role in tracking the data around incarcerated individuals’ involvements in prison and sharing that data with parole boards.

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 4. Quality Education
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 10. Reduced Inequalities
  • 16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

Success for Unlocked Labs involves creating a significant, positive impact on the lives of incarcerated individuals and fostering systemic change within the justice system. As we expand our footprint, we want to be able to track the following quantitative indicators:

-Program Participation: Tracking the number of incarcerated individuals enrolled in and completing our educational programs, as well as the growth in enrollment over time. 

-Skills Acquisition: Measuring the number of certifications, diplomas, or degrees earned by participants, and the improvement in relevant skills and competencies. 

-Recidivism Rates: Analyzing the reduction in recidivism rates among program participants compared to a control group, indicating the program's effectiveness in promoting successful reintegration.

 -Employment Outcomes: Assessing the rate of post-release employment for program participants, as well as job retention and wage growth over time.

-System Footprint Size: Assessing effectiveness in supporting decarceration through good time/parole through the number of years reduced in sentences.

What is your theory of change?

Education is one of the most effective tools for improving outcomes in the correctional system, from reducing recidivism, improving behavior, and producing positive life outcomes [1]. In a prison environment, education can increase a person’s sense of self-sufficiency and social competence [2]. Even more importantly, as a lack of education is one of the biggest barriers to civic participation and successful reintegration for incarcerated individuals as they return home; even when they overcome legal barriers, individuals need the tools to understand the world around them [3].

Our model provides an open-source education access and management platform for correctional systems, benefiting incarcerated individuals, education providers, and correctional administrators. By integrating with existing prison technology and offering approved external educational technology, our platform, UnlockED, enables students to access a range of educational tools. From literacy to career preparation, students can engage in asynchronous courses similar to edX or Coursera. The platform reduces barriers to formal degree programs, even when students are transferred between institutions. Education providers and instructors can manage student enrollment, recommend courses, administer quizzes and assignments, and track grades. Correctional institutions gain insights into popular programs and their correlation with positive outcomes both inside and outside of prison.

In the short term, our goals include increased access to education, higher enrollment rates in basic and higher education programs, and improved completion rates. The platform allows students to continue their education seamlessly despite transfers between institutions. Prisons can offer a greater number of courses to their populations without having to vastly increase their staff capacity. Additionally, we hope to have developed a comprehensive dataset around student engagement, tracking progress, and outcomes to inform future program improvements. Researchers can analyze the dataset and identify correlations between program participation and recidivism rates.

In the long term, as more and more students enroll and complete their studies, we hope to be in a position where we can collaborate with states to effectively implement good-time policies that reward individuals for participating in educational programs, reducing sentence lengths and promoting rehabilitation. As students who engaged with our programs start to be released, we hope to gain meaningful data about recidivism rates and provide them with the skills to find gainful employment opportunities upon release. And as we’ve collected more data and gained evidence-based insights, we can start building more meaningful content and inform policy and investment decisions to transform the cycle of mass incarceration into a cycle of smart and safe decarceration.

[1] https://sites.northwestern.edu...

[2] Parker, E. A. (1990). The Social-Psychological Impact of a College Education on the Prison Inmate. Journal of Correctional Education, 41(3), 140–146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41971811

[3] Uggen, C., Manza, J., & Thompson, M. (2006). Citizenship, Democracy, and the Civic Reintegration of Criminal Offenders. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 605, 281–310. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25...

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

Our digital learning platform, UnlockED, is a software application, designed to run both online and offline, depending on the constraints of the prison environment. Incarcerated individuals currently can access UnlockED through computers set up in a computer lab classroom or in their recreational area, or through “Securebooks,” pre-loaded laptops that can access applications and websites that were pre-approved by the Department of Corrections. To account for the switches from offline to online environments, we have also built a customized Linux operating system and server application to easily sync devices running UnlockED.

Our platform also incorporates Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) & Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) standards. Conforming to LTI standards allows us to integrate data with existing learning management systems and facilitate access to third-party content providers like Coursera and edX, while also improving UnlockED’s data security and student privacy. Similarly, SCORM standards allow our courses to work with any learning management system. Meeting these standards dramatically expands our platform’s potential to provide educational and training materials to incarcerated individuals. 

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Software and Mobile Applications
Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?


How many people work on your solution team?

5 full-time employees, 2 contractors, and 4 part-time employees

How long have you been working on your solution?


What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Diversity, equity and inclusion are core values of Unlocked Labs. The educational environment is enhanced when diverse groups of people with diverse ideas come together to learn. Our work incorporates a global perspective and a demonstrated commitment to issues of expanding access to education. A large part of our work comes from our employment model, actively seeking out directly-impacted individuals to work as contractors or employees to build out UnlockED and the rest of Unlocked Labs’ programs.

Unlocked Labs' approach emphasizes collaboration, empathy, and holistic solutions. Here's how we plan to continue to achieve our goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion: 

  • Inclusive Design: Engage with key stakeholders, including justice-involved individuals, staff, and community stakeholders to understand and address their specific needs and challenges, ensuring better outcomes. 

  • Ongoing Communication: Utilize feedback channels like surveys, focus groups, and community meetings to facilitate open dialogue and ensure our program remains responsive to evolving needs.

  • Empathy and Cultural Competence: Prioritize understanding and respect in all aspects of our work, approaching the diverse needs of incarcerated individuals and their communities with sensitivity and care. By incorporating these elements, we aim to create a lasting, positive impact while engaging the communities we serve throughout the project period.

Prisons are incredibly diverse institutions—40% of the population is black and 19% is Hispanic—and we recognize the need for our work to be accessible to all populations in prison and not be used to enforce barriers to marginalized groups. In particular, we want to call out the potential for correctional officials to misuse our data to reinforce systemic biases about education in prisons. Correctional officials could weaponize the data to argue that certain groups of people are not taking enough courses, or use the information to argue that education programs are ineffective. However, these things are already happening. Enrollment to high-quality programs is gate-kept by biased officers; college-in-prison programs are written off as unimportant by institutions; individuals are denied parole based on opaque criteria. Currently, the lack of systemic data makes it nearly impossible to prove these trends conclusively. 

We believe that making this data available, in the short term, predominantly stands to improve the status quo by surfacing insight into what is happening and how. Statewide data tracking can tell us which programs are effective in promoting educational attainment, improving student outcomes, and reducing recidivism. Consistent recordkeeping and data tracking can enable further research on positive outcomes in prisons. To prepare for these challenges, we are working with the criminal justice technology non-profit Recidiviz to understand best practices in data security, user research, and system design, to limit the potential for human bias and doctoring of information. 

As for our team, 75% of our leadership team identifies as women and 25% of our leadership team identifies as trans. 25% of our leadership team identifies as Asian. On the inside, we have 4 men who are currently incarcerated and serve as teaching assistants for coding education and are developing UnlockED. 25% of these individuals identify as Black.

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

We aim to build an education access and management product that state governments will pay us to implement at the statewide level. Today, the federal and state governments spend billions of dollars to incarcerate people and invest little to prepare them for life beyond prison. For example, states spend $45,771 on average per prisoner for the year. But with 600,000 people are released each year and 67.8% of them rearrested within 3 years of release, states are hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars in maintaining a seemingly broken system. By scaling robust opportunities for incarcerated people to pursue positive growth, we are confident we can save state governments millions of dollars that can be more effectively reinvested in communities. Studies show that investing in prison educaiton is immensely cost-effective: one study found that for every $1 invested in prison education, taxpayers save $4-$5 in re-incarceration costs during the first three years post-release.

While UnlockED as a technology is open source and will be made freely available, our non-profit entity will provide implementation of UnlockED to states as a service.The rollout of UnlockEd at a statewide level includes providing hardware for students and for classrooms, managing developers and customer success leads, and other administrative costs.  Our long-term goal is to build a non-profit entity that is largely revenue-funded, but we imagine our philanthropic partners will always play some role in organizational operations.

Currently we partner with the Missouri and New York. We are engaged with corrections officials in Washington, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and elsewhere about deploying our technology tools.

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Government (B2G)

What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

Our model is to provide the tools and seed the opportunity for states to invest in the infrastructure needed to catalyze decarceration and system transformation. Typically, we leverage philanthropic funding to launch initial platform pilots in a state and pay for initial engagement and operations. After proving value, and showing outcomes, we work with system partners to build a plan for long-term sustainability. Typically, this involves leveraging a combination of state and federal funding to pay for hardware and maintenance contracts. 

Our plan is to be in a position that public funding from system implementations can pay for the bulk of organizational operations. In the long run, we help partners to show that investment in quality educational infrastructure up front saves resources over time in the form of reduced incarceration and recidivism costs, as well as increased earnings/tax revenue from successful returning citizens.

We believe that this will have implications not just for our own sustainability, but for prison education programs more broadly. Enticing states to bear the cost burden of infrastructure will free up resources for the education providers themselves, who are currently burdened with cobbling together solutions and fundraising for technology.  Our long-term goal is to build a non-profit entity that is largely revenue-funded, but we imagine our philanthropic partners will always play some role in organizational operations.

Share some examples of how your plan to achieve financial sustainability has been successful so far.

We started moving towards generating revenue through working with states. Most recently, Hudson Link, the higher education in prison provider for New York, paid us $7,500 to implement UnlockED in one specific facility, the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. We are in current conversations with other states to bring on UnlockED to their entire statewide systems.

We've had funding from the following philanthropic sources:
Ascendium Foundation: 333,000
Mellon Foundation: 800,000
Blue Ridge Labs: 120,000
Camelback Ventures: 40,000
FastForward: 55,000
Schmidt Futures Tools Competition: 50,000
Grow with Google: 25,000
Roddenbery Fellowship: 50,000

Solution Team

  • Ms Jessica Hicklin Chief Technology Officer, Unlocked Labs
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