What COVID-19 Means for Incarcerated Students: Isolation, Uncertainty, & a Loss Sense of Humanity

Blog Post
Flickr Creative Commons / Jobs For Felons Hub
March 20, 2020

Last month, I presented my research on the gap in skills to an audience of incarcerated students. During the concluding discussion, many students shared the benefits of participating in a correctional college program. One student added:

"Before I came to this facility [jail], I had been in [federal prison] for so long, I forgot how to communicate with people from the outside. But being in the college program I am getting used to it again by interacting with my instructors and [external] speakers that come in. Before, it was as if I had forgotten how to have a conversation where I am treated like a human. Interacting in discussions with teachers, who actually care about me, is socializing me to be at a point where I can talk to you today and feel comfortable."

This student’s response speaks volumes to the impact of correctional college programs. But amidst the growing crisis of COVID-19, it is uncertain how this may change in the near future.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities across the country have suspended in-person classes, with many turning to online formats to finish the semester. Although converting to virtual platforms comes with its own challenges, these obstacles are exacerbated for incarcerated students. While many correctional college programs are transitioning over to some form of correspondence education during this crisis, removing the presence of instructors and college staff can have serious implications on students’ learning, personal development, and the prison culture.

I have committed the past year of my research evaluating data and interviewing individuals directly impacted by college-in-prison programs. Most recently, I spoke with college instructors and program facilitators to get a pulse on what is happening to our college students in prisons amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The tone was of uncertainty trying to adjust to a moving target, with a glimpse of light from potential innovation that may result from this new normal.

Response of College Programs

Many college-in-prison programs are reverting to the original conventions of prison education: correspondence education. This includes sending students (via mail or an internal courier system) a packet of materials for students to complete and then return to instructors. However, this method is foreign to many teachers accustomed to in-person classes. Instructors are now strategically thinking through how they will assess whether students are really digesting complex concepts. One instructor emphasized that many of his students are tactile learners, where only reading material without discussion poses serious challenges to students’ ability to comprehend the information.

So, how can instructors avoid going down the route of rote-memorization and ensure students are receiving quality education? It is a major challenge. Many are hopeful that this pandemic will pass within the next few weeks and they can go back into prisons to teach in-person as usual. Some have completely shut down shop as they work with correctional staff to send students literature and reading materials to keep them intellectually stimulated until this wave passes. One is sending enough reading materials to distribute to individuals beyond their college students. But with President Trump recently announcing this pandemic could last until July or August, this may force some programs to reevaluate their approach.

Importance of Moral & Ethical Care

Without exception, all of the program representatives I spoke with are using their moral and ethical compasses to maintain quality as they shift to remote strategies. Some programs were not initially stopped from coming into correctional facilities. But those providers opted to follow the protocols of their colleges to stop all university classes – interpreting the closure to apply to incarcerated students.

With the severity of the coronavirus quickly evolving, many programs abruptly canceled those classes before teachers could go back in to tell students what was happening. At this moment, many incarcerated students are in the dark of when or if their classes will resume. One facilitator told me, “To be honest, I have no clue what they may know. Everything happened so quickly we never got a chance to talk to them. We left thinking we would resume after Spring Break.”

At this moment, many incarcerated students are in the dark of when or if their classes will resume.

Socialization Aspect

Perhaps the most important dynamic of colleges coming into prisons are the teacher-to-student interactions and classroom discussions that bring human connection to the students. As a result, instructors and college facilitators are thinking creatively on ways to maintain this dynamic in their absence. Given that incarcerated individuals essentially share every aspect of their lives with others, instructors are embedding into their curricula opportunities to engage with their classmates on materials and assignments.

Adamantly following national CDC guidelines to limit groupings of 10 or less, many programs are suggesting students complete materials with their cellmate or a few others who live within their housing unit. The individuals I spoke with strongly believe the CDC guidelines given to those of us on the outside must also apply to those in prisons -- they are committed to taking the necessary precautions for the public safety of both those incarcerated and correctional staff.

But even with remote strategies for students to collaborate, the benefits of college-in-prison programs have spillover effects on the entire prison culture. Removing in-person instruction can have serious implications on the culture of facilities and could potentially make the transition back into prisons difficult for some college providers.

One instructor added, “For our students, coming to class is the highlight of their week because they get to engage and interact. My concern is that removing us from prisons will take away this opportunity. And if this extends into months, it is going to have a serious impact on not just our students but also the culture of the facility. Having us come in weekly changes not only the students, but also the prison culture. But if this persists for months, I’m afraid the prison culture will change for the worst.”

"... And if this extends into months, it is going to have a serious impact on not just our students but also the culture of the facility."

Opportunity for Innovation

In spite of the uncertainty, many programs are turning lemons into lemonade and reshaping what college-in-prison programs could look like in the future.

One program I spoke with is turning to tablets as a means of instruction during this time of social distancing. The program has a partnership with the state’s department of corrections to make this innovative adjustment to learning behind bars. This facility’s culture is open to new technology, with security protocols and infrastructure in place to have Wi-Fi available to those inside – but with highly controlled access mediated through a server. With the tablets, instructors can record lessons, and a few students can watch the lessons together and engage with each other.

The director of that program stated, “I personally do not believe in providing instruction solely on tablets, but I think moving forward this could possibly shift how we deliver education in this facility and others around the country. A hybrid model of both in-person classes and learning virtually could expand the reach of college education in prisons. It would also benefit our instructors who have to drive 1 or 2 hours to get to facilities [in rural areas]. With this model, our faculty can alternate between in-person and virtual learning.”

While tablets have their benefits, there is reasonable concern about the quality of education transmitted from tablet-based education. Especially for providers that solely use tablets and are deeply ingrained in virtual delivery, this could potentially open Pandora’s Box of abusive practices -- such as charging students to watch and engage with material not related to their education program.

The Uncertain Future

In response to COVID-19, removing in-person classes is the best approach to prevent the virus from entering into prisons. Unfortunately, by removing the personal connection, students are at risk of isolation from intellectual stimulation and losing the only safe space where they are treated humanely. This epidemic could possibly threaten the substantial progress college-in-prison programs have made over the past decade.

Adjusting to a moving target complicates our ability as a country to adapt quickly and efficiently. Now, more than ever before, it is evident to see how critical it is to build cooperative relationships across higher education programs and correctional facilities. In moments of crisis, established collaborations are essential to adapt and efficiently serve students. For programs lacking a strong rapport and partnership with their department of corrections and/or correctional administration, it is my hope that this pandemic propels them to develop those relationships for the sake of their students.

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