When coronavirus kept college professors from teaching in person at Maine Correctional Facility, officials reconfigured a prison classroom to hold classes over Zoom using the Internet from an administrator’s computer. Officials at Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan waived a ban on communication between volunteers and prisoners so that Delta College professors could instruct their students over email. At Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York, college classes are postponed and graduation is cancelled.
Coronavirus has upended the semester for college students across the country—and thousands of incarcerated students are no exception. On the outside, professors are conducting classes over video conferencing and graduations will be live-streamed online. But in prison, where the majority of incarcerated people are cut off from the Internet, the options for distance learning are limited, leaving college administrators scrambling to figure out how to finish the semester from beyond the prison walls. Many have found workarounds now that they can no longer enter the prisons. But they fear the coronavirus could undermine a critical component of college in prison: teaching in person.
Research shows that higher education in prison reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer money. In interviews with The Marshall Project college-in-prison administrators noted less often-cited benefits: College programs in prison build community, boost morale and provide incarcerated students with an antidote to the despair and monotony of prison life.
For Pablo Negron, who is enrolled at Prison-to-College Pipeline at Otisville Correctional Facility, college classes keep him “busy and away from prison politics and negativity.” Taking classes has given him a “sense of accomplishment,” which makes him feel like his time behind bars wasn’t simply wasted. As he looks forward to life after prison, he says he is optimistic he’ll have more career choices with a college education.
How well college programs are able to adapt during the pandemic largely depends on their relationship with the corrections department for their state, and what resources they’re able to provide. Many prisons are operating with a reduced workforce, and can’t spare the staff to keep the college programs running. But there’s an understanding among prison officials of the value of education programs, especially during a crisis, says Ruth Delaney, who provides assistance to college sites for the Vera Institute of Justice.
“Tensions are high,” Delaney said. “Being able to give people something familiar, and engaging can really help to make sure all the resources are focused on fighting coronavirus.”
By Nicole Lewis
Nicole Lewis is a staff writer reporting on voting rights, technology and the privatization of services in prisons and jails. She previously wrote for The Fact Checker at The Washington Post. In 2016, she won an Education Writers Association award as part of a series on school desegregation in Mississippi.