The Columbus Dispatch: Ronald Hopkins: Access to technology while incarcerated saved my life

With both the president and Congress poised to take on prison reform this year, there’s been a lot of debate over what a reform proposal should include. As a formerly incarcerated American who benefited strongly from access to education and technology, I believe any legislation should expand access to those programs for people like me.

I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger, especially after the death of my mom. I was lost, angry and reckless and I turned to narcotics as an escape. I was arrested twice in three months for methamphetamines possession and manufacturing, and, once incarcerated, quickly found myself in solitary confinement for bad behavior. After I was released I got in trouble again, this time for marijuana. I dropped out of high school and ended up back in prison.

But my story has a positive ending — and it begins with the way Jesus changed my life and opened my eyes to the need to get an education. When I saw many of my fellow inmates using JPay tablets, I asked my site director what the devices were for. I knew that some correctional facilities offered GED prep courses on these tablets and she confirmed that I could in fact earn a degree at Grafton Reintegration Center through a JPay educational program called Lantern. I started right away.

I’m not going to lie: It was pretty difficult to focus on studying with all of the chaos going on around me, but I was determined. I made the decision to incorporate my studying after my morning workout because it was usually the quietest time of day. Once I got into the rhythm of studying, I focused on math since it was a subject that I previously had trouble with – and soon enough, I was on a roll and even helping my peers.

For the first time in years, I could envision a new life for myself. I knew that I couldn’t fix my past — but I could change my future. And this all started with me finding my faith in Jesus, and the way he blessed me with a non-traditional prison education experience, powered by the kind of technology used every day outside of prison.

Not only did I pass my GED on my first attempt, but I got the highest score my teacher had ever seen. I enrolled in college that same day, and started taking classes using the same JPay tablet.

As a prisoner, I heard a lot about how many on the outside felt we shouldn’t have access to technology. I certainly understand why people feel this way, but wish they knew the facts about how tablets and a formal education — two benefits of technology in prison — have a positive impact on inmates’ lives.

In my home state of Ohio, for example, studies have shown that prison education drastically reduces reoffending rates by 18 percent. Inmates who do not take college courses in prison, by contrast, have a reincarceration rate of 40 percent.

My story is a perfect example of why these statistics are more than just numbers. Through the life changing experience of finding my faith, and having access to technology during my incarceration, I am better man today.

I was released in 2017. I now work full time as a joint venture manager at an internet marketing agency, serve as the youth director at my local church and travel around the nation telling my story. I often look back and think about how easily my life could have gone down a different path without my faith and access to technology, which many “on the outside” take for granted.

More inmates need to have access to the same tools I did — without faith and technology vendors like JPay, I most likely would be back in prison. However, just look at me now — you never know what might happen when you give people a chance to change their lives for the better. I hope that members of Congress understand the real impact these programs can have, and take action to give even more people the same opportunity that I had.

Ronald Hopkins is an Akron native who was incarcerated at Grafton Correctional Institution and Grafton Reintegration Center. He was released last year, and lives in Canal Fulton.

Columbus Dispatch
By Ronald Hopkin