4.16.20

Learning From Behind Bars In The Age Of Coronavirus

While the coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of millions of educators, students, and families, it has laid bare – for many, the unique set of challenges for incarcerated learners who are already accustomed to navigating isolation with limited resources.

The last few weeks have seen an unending stream of heartbreaking stories from correctional institutions which remind us just how vulnerable our prison system is to an unexpected crisis. Which got me wondering how incarcerated students have been affected by such massive upheaval, amid the imminent safety crisis unfolding in jails and prisons.

I learned that for the 2.3 million Americans who are incarcerated everyday, education can be a rare connection to purpose. Research has shown that correctional education makes prisons safer for both inmates and staff, reduces the odds that students will re-offend after they’re released, and increases the likelihood of post-release employment.

That data has drawn the interest of an unlikely group of allies, from President Donald Trump and country’s largest association of prosecutors to Senator Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. There is now growing, bipartisan support to amend the federal higher education law to ensure incarcerated people are eligible for federal Pell grants.

But, after decades of policies that ballooned the U.S. prison population and cut spending for incarcerated students, incarcerated learners still, for the most part, face an uphill battle.

To find out more about how the coronavirus pandemic is playing out for incarcerated learners across the country, I spoke with Susan Lockwood Roberts, the president of the Correctional Education Association.

Alison Griffin: Even under normal circumstances, educating incarcerated learners comes with its own unique set of challenges. What kind of barriers are correctional educators facing during the pandemic, which may not be obvious to those of us looking in from the outside?

Susan Lockwood Roberts: Every correctional administrator’s biggest concern must be keeping everyone behind the fence safe. That includes those who are incarcerated and those who are staffing the facility.

Social distancing in prisons and jails is almost impossible.  As a result, many facilities have gone into lockdown mode, meaning that incarcerated people are unable to leave their housing units unless necessary. So, programming has all but ground to a halt.

For example, in many states, education and other rehabilitative programming have either stopped or dramatically downsized. Where programming continues, class sizes are reduced so there are fewer people gathering together. This means that students who might have been going to class five days per week before the pandemic might only now be going two or three days a week.

In some states, staff access is limited to essential personnel—which pretty much means custody officers, medical staff, and food services. No one else is able to enter. If allowed, the best teachers can do is to create “packets” of assignments to be distributed to students who have to complete them on their own with little or no guidance.

While many classrooms in the free world have grown accustomed to having at least some technological support in their classrooms, which has eased the transition to distance learning, decades of divestment in correctional education have left most incarcerated students with few resources for success. Incarcerated learners are used to scraping by with the bare minimum, but this crisis is helping to expose just how little our society invests in them.

Griffin: Why is education important in the correctional setting, and, specifically, why should facilities continue to make education a priority during the pandemic?

Lockwood Roberts: During a pandemic, the health of everyone inside the facility must be the highest priority. But, when there are ways to keep learning going without jeopardizing the health and safety of either students or educators, it can serve a significant purpose.

Today, there are 2.3 million Americans in prisons or jails. They are disproportionately black, brown, and low-income. They are also disproportionately unlikely to have had prior access to quality education. In my experience, this is a group of learners who value educational opportunities, and are able to translate their learning into tangible contributions to society after release. In fact, research suggests that incarcerated people who participate in well-rounded correctional education programs have 43% lower odds of recidivating than those who do not.

Unfortunately, when correctional facilities are forced to shut down indefinitely, limiting incarcerated peoples’ movement even more than is typical and banning visitors and volunteers from entering, a profound negative impact is felt by everyone inside the facility. While we don’t yet have data on the effects of this pandemic, we often hear that rates of conflict, disciplinary infractions, and violence inside facilities spike when individuals do not have access to programming. Cramming people inside small cell blocks, without providing any way for them to stay productive or even distracted, will inevitably lead to an even more grim atmosphere.

Facility shutdowns can also have serious effects on the mental health of those who are incarcerated and the staff who supervise them. It is hard for people in the free world to handle quarantine, and we have all kinds of resources to keep us busy, from internet to television to video calling platforms to exercise, that are unavailable in correctional facilities. Many incarcerated people depend on visits from loved ones and programming to build a routine that feels meaningful. Having that all interrupted — even though incarcerated learners understand that the disruption is necessary — makes it that much harder.

We would never recommend that facilities have non-essential staff or volunteers come in during a pandemic; viral outbreaks are almost impossible to contain in prisons and jails, and preventing infection must be the top priority right now. But we know that, with the support of facilities, policymakers, and educators, it is possible to keep incarcerated students learning through a shutdown.  

Griffin: What kind of innovative solutions have you seen facilities implement in order to keep education programs running?

Lockwood Roberts: The best solution for incarcerated learners is the same solution that K-12 schools and colleges across the country have implemented: virtual learning. Devices like Chromebooks and tablets — which can be secured and connected to contained internet or cellular networks — can’t completely replace in-person instruction, but they can connect learners with large libraries of content, offer adaptive programs that provide greater support and differentiation than paper materials, and connect learners with their educators.

Some jurisdictions that had already obtained these devices are able to continue their programming with relatively few interruptions. For example, 18 states have partnered with a company called American Prison Data Systems, or APDS, to implement the use of educational tablets for incarcerated individuals. These devices include many of the same digital programs students in the free world use, as well as large libraries of e-books, rehabilitative video exercises, and other resources. And, unlike many other tablet providers, this company does not charge incarcerated learners or their loved ones to use their devices. Other companies, such as ATLO Software, use Launchbooks (a secure laptop) to provide educational and other rehabilitative programming to learners.

While all facilities are facing roadblocks in continuing their programming, the facilities that have already implemented these kinds of solutions are finding it much easier to keep learning going through this pandemic. But, these kinds of solutions are still the exception, not the standard. The vast majority of incarcerated people do not access any education at all — much less education supported by quality digital learning technology.

Griffin: Today, incarcerated people face some of the highest risks associated with this outbreak, and we’re hearing heartbreaking stories from facilities across the U.S. about prison and jail populations struggling to cope. Even beyond the logistical barriers created by the COVID-19 outbreak, the emotional stress must make it difficult for students to continue to learn. How can correctional educators support their students through this time? 

Lockwood Roberts: The best thing anyone can do is try to connect and encourage those who are dealing with the emotional stress associated with this outbreak. For many people, the sense of isolation can be one of the most damaging aspects of incarceration, and it can make re-entry even more difficult. Real, personal interactions can be hard to come by. So for many incarcerated learners, having some time every week with an educator who treats them with respect and dignity can be a major benefit of education in itself.

The easiest way for correctional educators to encourage their students is through virtual contact. Educators whose students have access to educational technology devices are in the best position to stay in touch with their classes. Others may be able to send their students electronic messages through telecommunication tablets that some facilities have implemented, although these messages often come with hefty fees. If those options are not available, educators can mail their students materials and words of encouragement.

It’s important that students have access to resources that can engage and stimulate them during this time — but for some, it may be even more important to know that folks on the outside care about them and are thinking of them. Whenever possible, correctional educators try to provide both of these benefits to their students.

Griffin: What additional resources or tools are correctional educators saying the need in order to get through this crisis?

Lockwood Roberts: The most simple resource correctional facilities need is books. Many prisons and jails are already short on books, and because many facilities have limited movement, incarcerated individuals are unable to visit their libraries. Some jurisdictions have e-books available on digital devices, but depending on the device provider, the download of the e-book comes with a cost to the user.  Most incarcerated individuals are indigent and have few avenues to make money, so the purchase of e-books is not an option. If e-books are not available, some facilities have authorized outside groups to mail books to individual students.

Many educators and facilities are working to see whether they can expand their digital infrastructure to connect students with education technology.  Some of these solutions can actually be implemented fairly quickly, with minimal set up, and can connect students with an extensive suite of learning resources.

Lastly, educators want content that students can navigate with little guidance. Even if they have to turn to hard copies, they want material that is self-explanatory, offers students clear instructions, and is engaging.

Something as simple as a book or a learning opportunity, which people on the outside take for granted, can make a world of difference for a learner completely cut off from the outside world, family, and loved ones. These are the kinds of investments that our correctional system is able to make and cannot afford to ignore.

Our country has spent the last several decades dismantling what was once a thriving correctional education system. Those actions were reflective of our broader willingness to write off incarcerated people. But, today, U.S. prisons and jails house millions of human beings, and we simply cannot afford to write them off.

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