Prison education adapts to pandemic challenges

By Ellie Ashford

Community colleges with educational programs at correctional facilities have had to deal with some extra challenges serving students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prisons don’t generally give inmates access to the internet, and many have become COVID hotspots. That is causing major disruptions in colleges participating in the U.S. Education Department’s Second Chance Pell pilot program.

Due to the pandemic, Chaffey College has transferred its inmate education to a correspondence model for the spring and summer. The college serves about 250 inmates at two state prisons. It’s been providing education at the California Institution for Women since 2005 and the California Institution for Men since 2015.

“We tried to replicate the experience any Chaffey student would have,” says Rob Rundquist, interim dean of institutional effectiveness and intersegmental partnerships.

Faculty taught classes in person. Inmates had access to computers at tutoring centers. But then there were coronavirus outbreaks at both prisons and visitors subsequently were prohibited. Inmates’ movements were restricted, and many could no longer get access to computer labs.

A different model

Under the correspondence model, faculty create packets with instructional materials, exams, projects and homework. Students complete the work at their own pace, in their cell or a classroom.

“It’s been challenging,” Rundquist says, but “the really challenging part is support services.”

College librarians collect resources to help students do research. They include a variety of source materials, requiring students to determine which ones are most credible. Chaffey plans to continue the correspondence approach in the fall.

Transforming lives

Like many colleges, Chaffey supplements its Second Chance Pell funds with other resources, which allows it to serve more inmates.

“No one is more dedicated to transforming their lives,” Rundquist says of the inmate students. “These programs are highly successful,” he notes, adding that each dollar spent on education in prisons saves $5 on reduced recidivism.

Many of the graduates have developed a lifelong connection to Chaffey, Rundquist says.

“These students are very dedicated. They take everything they receive from college not only to benefit their own lives but to benefit their community,” he says.

Life after prison

One of the biggest challenges they face is the lack of job opportunities for people with a prison record. One exception is in distribution, a major industry in Southern California’s Inland Empire. Some graduates have landed jobs in transportation, logistics and warehousing, Rundquist says. Others are working for nonprofits and support networks for “justice-impacted individuals.”

One former inmate of the California Institution for Women now works as an advocate urging Congress to lift the ban on allowing eligible incarcerated students in any state or federal prison to access Pell grants. (Second Chance Pell is restricted to participating colleges.)

The American Association of Community Colleges and other higher education and justice reform advocates support recently House-passed legislation that would restore such eligibility for eligible inmates.

Classes suspended

“When COVID hit, we put anything face-to-face on pause,” says Pete Selden, vice president of workforce development at Tulsa Community College (TCC) in Oklahoma.

TCC had to suspend its Second Chance Pell program at the Dick Conner Correctional Center. Visitors were banned and inmates were not allowed to have internet access. Inmates who enrolled in the spring received incompletes. Selden hopes they can finish the classes in the fall.

He is confident the prison will find a way to provide limited internet access for the students. If that happens, the fall semester will be reduced from 16 to eight weeks. New students won’t be admitted because of the challenge of teaching online.

Under the college’s partnership with the prison, TCC faculty deliver classes leading to an associate of arts degree in liberal arts, an associate of applied science degree in business focusing on entrepreneurship, and a certificate in horticulture.

TCC partners with Langston University, a historically black institution, that offers a pathway to a bachelor’s degree to inmates at Dick Conner.

Last summer, 70 inmates graduated from the program, the most since it started in 2007.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Ellie Ashford

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.