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COVID-19 Changes the Face of Education in the Nation’s Prison Systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced prisons across the country to alter the educational programs they offer. The change has highlighted the inequality in available technology between different state prison systems and revealed that many educators are concerned not only with education, but also with the prisoners’ emotional and social well-being.

Maine Correctional Facility, for example, offers education via the video meeting application Zoom, using the internet from an administrative computer. Officials at Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan waived a ban on communication between volunteers and prisoners so that Delta College professors could instruct pupils via email. “At Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York, college classes are postponed and graduation is cancelled,” The Marshall Project reports.

According to Mia Armstrong, writer for Slate.com, just as the U.S. education system inherently has glaring inequalities based on the individual’s financial means, so too there are disparities among prisons. “Many college administrators say corrections officials have bent over backwards to make sure college classes continue, but without laptops, tablets or an easy way to securely access the Internet, many college programs have had to put their semesters on pause. With classes on hold, some incarcerated students won’t be eligible for important incentives. In some state prisons, earning a college degree while behind bars could result in a sentence reduction through ‘good time’ credit programs,” The Marshall Project reports.

States have shut down all forms of visitation in their prisons because of the virus, including spiritual and educational program volunteers. Continued education is now based on a prison’s technological capabilities and that difference could be anything from being able to conduct coding classes and podcasting to simply having closed-circuit televisions and slide projectors. Some prisons can only support correspondence classes. Students receive their assignments and information through the postal service and send their homework back the same way. There is no interaction, and questions for instructors could take weeks to answer.

Some prison systems are experimenting with kiosk- and tablet-based electronic messaging boards for communication. Others use Canvas and Blackboard instruction facilitated by student clerks or Zoom and Skype with live classrooms. But, these systems by reason of social distancing carry small classrooms — and are costly. Some states have even denied similar proposals introduced into their prisons because of the added risks and necessary resources the programs hold for the prisons.

Educators are concerned about the precedent the pandemic is setting for future access to higher education and the social and emotional well-being that engenders. In-person programming assists in rehabilitation, providing prisoners some of the ties and emotional support needed for positive rehabilitation. “For me when I was incarcerated, the idea of people volunteering ... it was like the community, it was like the outside world being able to come in, and it reminded me that I get to get out,” stated Ernst Fenelon, Jr., senior program coordinator of the Prison Education Project. “So it was this connection that mattered to me, and a lot of what helped me sustain my transformation to return back to a productive citizen of society.”

Armstrong suggests that the pandemic has redefined the role of the prison educator. Not only do they facilitate information and provide creative ways to continue education, but they now also advocate for prisoners’ safety and push for the early release for vulnerable populations.