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COVID-19 Lockdowns in Prisons Affecting Post-Secondary Education

Research has proven that post-secondary education in prisons is a powerful tool for successful reentry. “There is a strong case to be made for the critical nature of digital literacy in successful reentry and your ability to get a job after prison,” said Ruth Delaney, program manager at Vera Institute for Justice. “The difference in what the internet did in the late ’90s to what it does right now is night and day. You’d have to learn an entirely new way of operating.”

Even the Department of Education has shown its belief in the importance of post-secondary education in prison by allowing prisoners access to Pell Grants, something that had not been done since 1994.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, what progress that had been made with this disenfranchised group has been eradicated. Social distancing and institutional lockdowns have ceased all in-person education. As it stands, prisons are only required to provide primary education, not post-secondary. So now due to the lockdown, all college curriculums have either resorted to correspondence-styled classes, leveraged whatever technological equipment the prison could offer, or ceased classes altogether.

In correspondence-style classes, the college provides a written course guide and work assignments are delivered to the prisoner through the mail. The student then returns his assignments in the same fashion. Testing would be by a proctor or other qualified monitor. There is no personal interaction with the class professor or other students enrolled in the subject.

Tanya Erzen, professor at the University of Puget Sound and executive director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, said the lack of access and shared accountability is a serious drawback. “There is such a value to in-person classes because it replicates an on-campus experience; people are treated as students; they get to interact with different people they wouldn’t normally in the prison,” she said. “There’s this whole community and network that is no longer there.”

Post-secondary classes that utilize some form of electronic technology in the prison still lack classroom dynamics. Moreover, most prison technology is inadequate, outdated, or of inferior quality. Devices are created specifically for the prison environment, built for safety and security.

Clear construction with no connection ports, internet accessibility to whitelisted websites only, or learning management systems that update only after syncing to a managed kiosk.

Executive director of the Brad Prison Initiative, Max Kenner, said, “The ethical obligation to leave and not be responsible for introducing the virus into these institutions was clear as day. How we get back will not be clear as day.”