The National Conference on Higher Education in Prison (NCHEP) concluded earlier this month. Due to the pandemic, this annual meeting of practitioners, students, and advocates moved online for the first time, and, while the in-person experience of community building is not easy to duplicate remotely, the increased opportunity for engagement and access certainly aligned with this year’s conference theme, “Amplifying Access.” With its assembly of breakout sessions, plenaries, and chat-boxes, the virtualized conference was better able to prioritize the voices of incarcerated students and those often shut out by the expenses of conference travel. That currently incarcerated students appeared remotely via Zoom was not only appropriate for the conference theme, but also highlighted the growing importance of the issue of technology in the field. At least six presentations (including one by Kurtis) emphasized the need to equip students with digital skills that could help amplify their educational and reentry experience. Technology and digital literacy, in other words, is clearly a growing concern, especially since the pandemic has increased student reliance on technology for purposes of remote learning, and because of how interwoven technology is with our daily lives. 

In a panel entitled “Zooming Toward Amplified Access,” we were privileged to hear the incarcerated students of the College of South Eastern (CSE) not only discuss how they were transformed by a college education, but also to stress the importance of technology and digital literacy as part of their educational journey. These students, some of whom entered prison as children and have been incarcerated for more than thirty years, noted that they have never seen a Facebook page or direct-messaged anyone on Instagram. Nor have they, as traditional students have, perused large digital libraries or the internet for their research papers or capstone projects. As one CSE student explained, before technology supports made their way into prisons, incarcerated students were excluded from what has become an increasingly digitally connected world—left rummaging through newspapers, magazines, and understocked libraries for information, or listening to radio or network television. The message was clear: more needs to be done.

“Amplifying In-Person: Reframing the Debate on Technology in the Prison Classroom,” with Sheila R. Meiman, Raritan Valley Community College RISE; Kurtis Tanaka, Ithaka S + R; Ethan Annis, Mt. Tamalpais College (formerly the Prison University Project); Heather Erwin, University of Iowa Liberal Arts Beyond Bars; Dr. Erin Corbett, Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc. Not pictured: Valeria Dani, Alliance for Higher Education in Prison

Several subsequent panels addressed how the field might address these needs. In “Utilizing Education Technology to Support Expanded Program Access,” panelists spoke about how technology helped them continue to support students during the pandemic, as prisons nationwide halted in-person instruction. As this panel demonstrated, an important leitmotif of the field’s discussion on technology is the concern that technology will threaten in-person programming, given that remote programs are easier for Departments of Corrections to facilitate. While this panel framed its discussion on how technology can increase access and support in-person education, it also made clear there are no easy solutions. Another panel, “Amplifying In-Person: Reframing the Debate on Technology in the Prison Classroom,” moderated by Kurtis, acknowledged this concern but sought to think through what the field’s goals and needs are when it comes to technology. Of particular note from this panel was not just technology’s ability to amplify access, but also accessibility, by allowing programs to reach and support differently-abled learners.

As the field continues to wrestle with the tension between technology and in person programming, the virtual format of this year’s conference may itself provide an opportunity to reflect on what is gained and what is lost by moving online. While more than 900 people were able to attend at least one conference panel or presentation (compared to the ca. 500 that attended the previous in-person meeting in 2019), there was just one virtual networking session. Whereas at past conferences attendees could talk and exchange information in corridors, at luncheons, or as they were finding their seats, that basic human interaction was noticeably absent this year. While the virtual format certainly made this year’s NCHEP more inclusive, it was missing some of  the spontaneity and camaraderie that defined past conferences. 

Looking to the future, we expect that the issue of technology will continue to be key for the field. Furthermore, as we begin to glimpse a post-pandemic world on the horizon, and as instructors and educational providers gain a better sense of what prison education will look like on the other side, there will be a clear need to take account of the lessons learned over the past year. Finally, the conference theme, “Amplifying Access,” though set more than a year ago has proven remarkably prescient. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need for more and better access to education through a variety of delivery modalities, and the recent restoration of Pell funding for incarcerated people represents a seismic shift in their ability to access higher education. The issue of access will therefore continue to be a pressing for the field, though we expect that, as access expands, program quality and accountability will likewise grow as a necessary corollary. We look forward to what will assuredly be a lively discussion of all these issues at the next NCHEP.