How to Educate Prisoners During a Pandemic
An educator who works inside of correctional facilities explains the difficulty of his job during the COVID-19 crisis.
During one of those terrible first-day introduction sessions in college, one of my professors told us that he volunteered his time to teach at correctional facilities. Maybe it was the desire one feels to have a productive college career that made me ask him about what he had said.
He was glad to speak to me—he had been trying to get students involved for a few semesters, and I was the only one to reach out so far.
Several conversations later, I contacted the head of the organization with an idea for a class I wanted to teach. She was a sweet woman but warned me it was not for the faint of heart. After much discussion, we finally reached an agreement. I began a yearlong process of shadowing classes inside facilities and preparing a curriculum with those same instructors and several of my own university professors.
Teaching Inside Is Pretty Much Like in the Movies
Before the pandemic, teaching inside a correctional facility was a lot like one might expect. You needed to have the appropriate credentials to enter and submit to a thorough pat-down for contraband. The materials you brought in with you were scrutinized before you went to the designated classroom, hoping to meet your students.
I must place a particular emphasis on the word “hoping" here, since I often wouldn’t get to meet my students at all. Issues would frequently arise, whether it was a missing inmate in the headcount, a potential fight or found contraband—all of which were cause for a lockdown.
Sometimes it was a lack of proper scheduling or mismanagement of time between guards that would delay my students' mealtime until it conflicted with our class time. On one Thanksgiving afternoon (I taught on Thursdays and would not miss it regardless of the holiday), I sat in my classroom waiting for my students for an hour. Eventually, a few of them walked in and apologized for their tardiness. Their guard had caused a delay in their block and they almost missed their one chance of the year to have turkey and gravy. Despite the special occasion, they'd quickly chowed down to make it to my class for a portion of our session. I was flattered they rushed through such a sacred, and, for them, rather infrequent meal to make it to my class.
Prison Education Is Good for Prisoners, Society and Me
However many hurdles I had to get over, there were seldom events I looked forward to more in my week than my afternoons teaching at correctional facilities. This wasn't because of the compensation I received or for any acclaim that fell upon me as a result. (On the contrary, I rarely mention my involvement in this program to people.) It was because of the students' willingness to learn, reflect on the material, and engage in discussion.
It was also because of their dawning relentlessness.
I had individuals come into my classroom—some with 15 or 20 years of their sentence behind them, others with the same amount ahead of them—eager to better themselves, regardless of a situation that would drive many to depression. I learned much from watching them consistently overcome their challenges, and to keep on pushing themselves further.
Prison education programs don't just benefit prisoners or their teachers. They also provide a long-term economic benefit that is difficult to overlook.
Statistics provide a strong case for education in prison.
Individuals in these systems are significantly less likely to return to prison—a massive expense on the federal and state budgets—than those who did not participate in these programs. Some studies indicate every dollar spent on prison education saves taxpayers between four and five dollars, providing the government with enormous incentives for supporting such programs. Simply put, states—and, more specifically, taxpayers—save money for each individual that leaves prison and doesn’t return. Education programs make this happen more often.
When the education is accredited, the benefit becomes twofold: It provides society with more self-sufficient citizens, better potential job candidates and entrepreneurs that are less likely to be reliant on welfare. It also makes it more likely for former prisoners to have children who obtain a post-secondary education.
The benefits inside are immense too.
Education in correctional facilities has been correlated with a decrease in violence by creating a safer environment for both inmates and staff. This was something I realized from instructing some of the most cordial and respectful individuals I have ever met and what I heard firsthand from a student.
One afternoon after class, a student thanked me for coming and told me how much education had helped him become a better, less violent and more forgiving person. At one point, he said, he had been willing to fight anyone on his block for the slightest stare. Now he’d become friends with most of the guys he lived with.
Teaching (or Not) During the Pandemic
With correctional facilities experiencing significantly higher rates of infections and rates than outside, education programs in many prisons have been forced to move to less conventional approaches—or even stop outright, stalling the benefits they were posed to provide.
It may come as a surprise to some, but prisoners generally do not have access to the internet or the software needed for virtual learning. This means that while many educators have the luxury of assigning their classes PDFs to prepare for classes, I do not. My students also can't afford outrageously expensive textbooks, so my only option was to provide the materials myself. That often means a simple four-page reading for a group of 20.
When the pandemic stopped instructors from being able to go in, I felt dismayed. But, thankfully, nonprofits like the one I instruct for don’t lack for creativity and stead. Unlike other programs, we haven't been forced to stop—just to adapt—and we've had to use some unconventional approaches to do so.
Recently, we were asked to prepare weeklong courses in a four-page-maximum package distributed to students while in-person instruction was suspended. We had that space to provide the expectations we had, a handful of readings and some assignments. For me, at least, this meant prompts that allowed the students to reflect on the passages I picked out.
The prospects of this project were promising, but the results have been stifled by ongoing virus outbreaks and lockdowns. So far, there have been close to 150 confirmed cases inside the facility where I instructed, and one staff death from the virus. The packets for students, delivered weeks ago, haven’t been distributed yet and are creating a backlog in the program.
Waiting for the packets to be distributed may mean an indefinite amount of inactivity. Instead, we continue to try and figure out alternatives. There’s a promising virtual program that provides students with specialized tablets, and, with the current state of affairs, it might just happen.
Teaching in prison has also been an opportunity for me to learn from my students. Now I have a chance to put into practice the attitude they've taught me: We must not fail to persevere. Resilience, particularly in the face of adversity, must always win the day—if not for our sake, then for the sake of others.