With limited technology in their facilities, most college-in-prison programs moved to paper correspondence amid the pandemic. Others were suspended altogether.
The benefits of college programs in prisons are well documented. Research shows that postsecondary programs can reduce recidivism while improving morale and safety in facilities and increasing post-incarceration job prospects. Support for prison education has grown in recent years, as has support for allowing inmates to access federal financial aid, which was banned in 1994.
Prisons have been, along with nursing homes and meatpacking plants, hit incredibly hard by COVID-19. Limited space and disinfectant made the disease spread widely in facilities with insufficient health care and a high prevalence of underlying conditions. There have been nearly 44,000 cases among inmates in state and federal prisons, likely an undercount since testing has been limited inside facilities. Though local jails have been releasing some detainees to reduce overcrowding and mitigate the spread of disease, prisons have released far fewer people.
The college programs housed in prisons have now, for the most part, gone one of three paths. Some have switched to a paper correspondence model, while others have tried to leverage any existing technology in their facility. Many have suspended their programs altogether.
“The departments of corrections that had gotten farther into offering technology, offering controlled internet, and had gotten some level of comfort with that over the years, those are the places that adapted most quickly to this situation,” said Delaney, a program manager at the Vera Institute for Justice, which assists colleges and corrections agencies with expanding postsecondary education.
Research has shown that black and Hispanic students have unequal access to quality education, at schools with few resources and little funding. Black and Hispanic students are less likely than their white peers to enroll in a four-year college or to graduate once enrolled. Black and Hispanic graduates are more likely to have attended institutions with less money or resources.
With COVID-19 now spiking in several states and outbreaks ongoing in prisons, the future of higher education in prison is still filled with uncertainty.
By Lilah Burke