COVID-19 puts damper on prison-based college programs

For thousands of incarcerated students who participate in prison-based college programs, COVID-19 has proven especially disruptive. While some educators have found ways to navigate correctional facility restrictions to offer remote instruction, even those courses lack “a critical component: teaching in person,” The Marshall Project reports.    

Some programs shift gears, others go on hiatus

Many correctional facilities bar incarcerated people from accessing the internet, greatly complicating any transition to online learning. Moreover, programs that receive funding through the Second Chance Pell program are prohibited from providing instruction or assignments via mail, thwarting some attempts at correspondence learning. 

As the coronavirus pandemic ramped up, colleges found themselves “scrambling to figure out how to finish the semester,” and corrections officials “bent over backwards to make sure classes continue[d].” Some, like Maine Correctional Facility, have used administrators’ computers to hold Zoom classes. Others have resorted to email instruction, an approach used by Michigan’s Saginaw Correctional Facility after lifting a ban on communication between prisoners and volunteers. 

However, some prisons have paused their programs entirely, citing rigid regulations and insurmountable gaps in staffing, technology, and internet access. Officials and educators at some facilities also have decided that distance learning isn’t worth the tradeoffs, pointing to the sense of community and the morale boost that incarcerated students experience when meeting in person.

Jody Lewen, executive director of the college program at San Quentin Prison in California, told The Marshall Project that the facility will suspend classes until it’s safe to resume in person, given the value of those peer and professor interactions. “It’s particularly important for students who don’t have lots of relationships to a wide range of economic and social networks,” Lewen said.

Related: The trade-offs of online prison education >

Ripple effects and an uncertain future

Putting programs on hold can have implications for incarcerated students that stretch well beyond canceled classes and graduations. Pablo Negron, who takes college courses at Otisville Correctional Facility, says he relies on them to stay “busy and away from prison politics and negativity.” Many incarcerated students also earn crucial incentives—such as shorter sentences or transfers to facilities closer to home—by completing college courses.    

It remains unclear when educators will be ready to visit correctional facilities that have struggled to contain COVID-19—and when incarcerated students will see their classes resume. Ultimately, prison-based college programs will face a “heartbreakingly difficult equation” as they decide when and how to resume in-person instruction, Max Kenner, director of New York-based Bard Prison Initiative, told The Marshall Project.

Visit the Prisons and Justice Initiative website to learn how Georgetown University brings together leading scholars, practitioners, and students to examine mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. PJI also has become a national leader in higher education for incarcerated people, professional training for returning citizens, support for families of the incarcerated, and exonerations after wrongful convictions.

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