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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.

But just as colleges and universities had to drastically adjust their instruction when the coronavirus pandemic exploded in March, so too did higher education programs in prisons.

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 paper correspondence model, which involves packets of coursework dropped off at the prison and then picked up for grading, appears to be the most common, said Kurtis Tanaka, a qualitative analyst with Ithaka S+R who researches higher ed and technology in prisons.

But Second-Chance Pell experimental sites, part of a Department of Education experiment in which incarcerated students are able to access Pell Grants, are not able to conduct correspondence classes due to provisions in the law.

Those programs had to find other ways to communicate with students. Some leveraged limited internet access or existing laptops and tablets that are not connected to the internet but can sync to a learning management system.

"A lot of times the learning management system is very clunky or crashes or doesn't work the way it's supposed to, and there are issues with students being able to get to the kiosks to upload assignments," Tanaka said of a program that switched to using tablets.

Other college programs have used email systems that exist in prisons or set up a toll-free number for students to call to reach an instructor, said Ruth Delaney, a program manager at the Vera Institute for Justice, which assists colleges and corrections agencies with expanding postsecondary education.

Other colleges had to cancel their programs.

For Second-Chance Pell sites, provisions in the CARES Act made it so students did not have to forfeit any years from their lifetime Pell eligibility. But suspending a program can still be mentally and emotionally challenging for students, Tanaka said.

"These programs are often really important for mental well-being and personal well-being," he said. "They're places they're treated as students, as people, and not like criminals."

Tanya Erzen, a professor of religion and gender and queer studies at the University of Puget Sound and executive director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, said her program chose to switch to a paper correspondence model. That course design can have similar drawbacks, in that students are not able to sit in class with their peers and talk to professors, which can be even more important in prison programs, she said. Finishing work can be difficult for students without the accountability of class.

"Morale is and was pretty low," Erzen said. "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. There's this whole community and network that is no longer there."

For the first time in nine years, the Puget Sound project won't be admitting a new fall cohort. Students are typically working toward an associate degree, but the project was launching a bachelor's program this fall. That's been delayed until January.

Technological Constraints

"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.

But for many reasons educational technology is very limited in prisons.

"The overriding concern for the Department of Corrections is always security, both security for their staff and for incarcerated people in their custody," Tanaka said.

Departments worry that hardware could be taken apart and weaponized, or that inmates could use the internet to plan crimes, communicate with victims of crime or access pornography.

It can be difficult for education programs to find technology that meets the standards set by a Department of Corrections. Most of the technology in prison is then specifically made for the prison environment, such as a clear laptop with no connection ports. The devices can almost never access the open internet and instead view either whitelisted websites or a learning management system. Some devices "sync" to the internet only when they are plugged in to a kiosk to update, limiting how fast correspondence can happen. Much of the tablet technology is meant for communicating with family members or reading rather than completing academic coursework.

Many prison tablets have small screens that make typing out a paper extremely difficult, Tanaka said. While there are sometimes computer labs in prisons, college programs are not always allowed access, since the prison system has a mandate to provide high school education but not postsecondary, he said.

Though some departments may see the need for more technology now that in-person programs have stalled, installing the systems in a prison can take a lot of work -- work that is not going to happen when prisons are locked down and the pandemic is still raging inside.

Erzen said it took her local Department of Corrections two years to approve a group of donated laptops for classes. When classes switched over to a distance model a few months ago, foreign language teachers hoped to use MP3 players to assess students' speaking ability. But that request was denied.

"We're offering an academic program and there's really very little access to academic materials," she said. "I don't think people realize that students inside are still writing papers by hand. And then you think about revision and learning to revise and edit and editing other people's work, by hand."

Being able to use technology is key for successful re-entry into society and also for academic achievement, she said. Independent research is severely constrained when a student can't use a search engine or an academic database.

"There is a strong case to be made for the critical nature of digital literacy in successful re-entry and your ability to get a job after prison," said Delaney, noting that technology may be even more important for those serving long sentences. "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."

While there is widespread agreement that more technology is needed to enrich classes in prisons, many in the field remain wary or fearful of replacing in-person classes with distance education. Some practitioners have been concerned that the COVID crisis could push corrections departments in that direction.

"The rapid introduction of technology into the prisons is a double-edged sword. While greater connectivity and greater options for learning and reading and communication can very often be a very good thing for people trapped in these institutions, the advent of technology may also or may likely lead to a diminution of the most important, most meaningful, most valuable things that happen in the prison," said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which switched to a paper correspondence model. "They can tell us all day that distance learning won't replace in-person learning, but we have to be skeptical."

While there had been some forays into online education in prison before the pandemic, the majority of programs were still in person. Supporters of online learning say it's safer for departments, and can be especially useful at facilities in isolated locations, or ones that don't have space to hold a class.

But there has been little research on whether the benefits of prison education still apply when a program is online. Many educators believe that meeting role models, being treated with dignity and forming a community are a major part of what makes postsecondary education so meaningful in prisons.

"If there's any population that we should not deploy impersonal or experimental computer-based or paper-based versions of education on, it's incarcerated people, who don't have the freedom to manage their own interpersonal relationships, who are deprived of interpersonal relationships," Kenner said.

Mary Gould, director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, said there is no doubt that incarcerated students need better access to technology. But incarcerated students, who have often been marginalized and underresourced throughout their lives, deserve high-quality learning, just as marginalized students outside prisons do. For now, that means in-person learning.

"People who have not had access to quality education, who have been historically and systematically excluded from quality access to education, deserve as their first chance at quality higher education a mode of engagement and the resources and technology and tools that anecdotally and empirically have been proven to be best suited for high-quality learning," she said.

In 2003, 68 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons did not have a high school diploma (for comparison, that number was only about 15 percent in the general population). Black men account for about 37 percent of the male prison population and Hispanic men 22 percent. Only 12.3 percent of the U.S. population is black and 12.5 percent are Hispanic.

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.

"It's a myth that it's a second chance at quality education," Gould said. "That means there was a first chance."

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.

"The ethical obligation to leave and not to be responsible for introducing the virus into these institutions was clear as day," said Kenner. "How we go back will not be clear as day."

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