As the announcements of campus closures continue unabated, colleges and universities across the country are struggling to figure out how to adjust their teaching and learning practices, with many moving their courses online. But what does this mean for students who are incarcerated? Building on Ithaka S+R’s ongoing research on how technology can be leveraged towards increasing access to higher education in prisons and more equitable learning experiences, today we are taking a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting prison education programs and the potential impact on incarcerated learners.

A major concern in the field of higher education in prison is the lack of data collected on this particular student population. We can only speak in rough estimates when we discuss the scope and scale of higher education in prison. In 2018, an estimated 210 college and university programs offered credit bearing courses, and the federal government’s Second Chance Pell experiment, the principal funder of many programs, provides Pell grants to a maximum of 12,000 students. With over two million people incarcerated in the United states, the current scale of higher education is small, but growing. Because Department of Corrections’ (DOC) policies vary widely by state (and even by facility), individual programs are each facing a different set of challenges as they adapt to the present crisis. The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison (AHEP), the national coalition of higher education in prison programs and their allies is doing vital work by taking the lead in sharing information between the programs and coordinating responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The State of Higher Education in American Prisons

As we described in a report last year, the higher education in prison landscape changed drastically after the passage of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. While access to higher education in prisons has expanded in recent years, numerous obstacles remain in offering programming. One of the most significant hurdles to fielding higher ed programming inside, and perhaps the one most apropos to the current moment, is the general absence of the internet inside of prison facilities (that is, for incarcerated people). With very few exceptions, students are not allowed to access the internet, and if they are, they are allowed to access only a handful of whitelisted websites. Access to any and all information, therefore, is mediated through the instructor or program coordinator and the materials they assign and bring in for the class. These materials, such as textbooks, pens, highlighters and sticky notes, must generally be approved at the beginning of the semester, meaning there is not always the flexibility to add in or alter a syllabus to accommodate unexpected circumstances, though instructors must try to plan for the unexpected anyways (e.g. a security incident in a facility may mean no class that week, with no opportunity to make it up later). Programs are increasingly partnering with their institution’s library to allow students to request library resources through a request form, but there is little opportunity for students to actually research themselves.

Despite these and many more limitations and hurdles, a growing number of programs across the country have been working to provide incarcerated people with meaningful and enriching educational opportunities. What’s more, these programs are often beacons of hope to those enrolled in them, a time and place where incarcerated people feel they are just that, people, people who are seen, not stigmatized, met with compassion not condemnation. The impact of COVID-19 on these programs and students will thus be particularly hardfelt.

How programs are responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Many programs have already ceased in person programming, either at their own initiative or that of the Department of Corrections, in order to limit the number of people coming into the facility and thereby decreasing the risk of exposure. Unlike courses offered in the free world, however, the absence of computers and internet access means courses cannot be moved online. Doing so would require a radical shift in current corrections’ policy as well as major investments in infrastructure. Programs that operate in prisons, therefore, are having to make difficult choices as to how they will continue to serve their students.

One of the most common responses that we have heard implemented is switching to a correspondence model of instruction. Similar to the move to online instruction outside of prison education, instructors are being asked to rapidly switch their curriculum to a format that can be distributed and consumed in an asynchronous manner. Typically this involves the assembling of course packs with readings, assignments, and other materials, though providing access to a recorded lecture may, in most cases, be difficult or impossible. Some instructors are reporting that they are coordinating handoffs of course packets through gates and in parking lots and, as it is still unclear how long the virus can survive on different surfaces, quarantines of the material for several days before it is distributed to students. DOCs also exercise strict control and screening of all materials entering their facilities, and in some cases, these packets must undergo review in the mail room before they are distributed.

In states and facilities with more advanced technical setups, some are sharing that their classes are able to continue through video conferencing, and in some jurisdictions, it seems that the DOC is relaxing some of its restrictions around the access and use of technology by programs and incarcerated students. This is however uneven, and in some jurisdictions DOCs are unwilling to allow programs to access the prison tablets their students currently have to leverage these devices for providing instruction.

The situation is changing quickly, and it is important to point out that most jurisdictions do not have a mandate to support education, though many are starting to see the value of it. However, because of this fact, it is usually in no one’s job description to support higher ed, even in normal circumstances, and the increased pressure the current situation is putting on staff may mean that current procedures, such as reviewing and distributing course materials, may soon be halted. The cessation of programming will leave incarcerated individuals with little to do to occupy their time, but perhaps the greatest strain will be not knowing what will happen in the future. Most immediately, like their peers outside of the prison, many are concerned and disappointed that they will likely miss their graduations. The passage of the 1994 crime bill set a precedent for the precipitous collapse of higher education in prison programming, leaving many students confused as to why programming had suddenly stopped, and it will be important for programs to continue to communicate with their students to assure them of their ongoing commitment once the crisis has passed.

While many programs have few options beyond correspondence, those that have access to some form of online or digital delivery are also in a difficult position when considering the future of higher education in prison. Because online and correspondence education is much easier for DOC to manage, there is fear in the community that how programs respond in the present crisis will set a precedent for distance learning in the future. While education on its own can be life changing, many in the field, including students, believe it is the human connection more than anything else that changes lives. It will therefore be critical that the opportunity for in person instruction not be diminished as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to trying to continue coursework, many programs are focussing their efforts on measures that will mitigate the impact of the virus on the incarcerated population. Access to quality healthcare is a major issue of concern for the incarcerated population to begin with, and the correctional healthcare system is likely ill equipped to handle the additional pressure from an outbreak of the virus. Indeed, an outbreak of COVID-19 within a facility has the potential to be especially lethal. The incarcerated population disproportionately have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus, and many prisons charge co-pays that, given the fact that incarcerated people make on average $0.30 to $1.40 an hour for their labor, may be impossible to pay or may discourage them from seeking prompt treatment.

Preventative measures are therefore paramount to keep the incarcerated population safe and healthy. The American Correctional Association (ACA) has posted resources to its website in service to this goal and hosted a webinar on how DOCs should prepare. Likewise, the Vera Institute of Justice has provided factsheets for a number of justice related agencies. The Marshall Project is documenting how DOCs are responding to COVID-19, and is tracking policies around the suspension of visitations for families and legal counsel.

Of course, the most significant preventative measure is to have fewer people incarcerated in the first place by ending mass incarceration. This is a goal with a much longer arc than the current crisis, but some progress is being made, not in prisons, but jails. Because roughly 600,000 people are held in jails on any given day (an estimated 10.6 million people will cycle through over the course of year), and the rate of turnover in a jail facility means the likelihood of a disease entering the facility and spreading is high. Owing to this fact, advocates in California, Illinois, Indiana, and beyond have called for the release of people held in jails as well as elderly individuals held in prisons. Promising responses in California, Ohio, Illinois and other jurisdictions give hope that real progress may be made in this direction. Ending mass incarceration and controlling the coronavirus will require system wide efforts, and, though higher education is only one element of each of these crises, it has a valuable role to play.

Ways Forward

Despite the dangers the COVID-19 pandemic presents, there is also opportunity to learn from actions taken now and improve the delivery of higher education in prisons in the future. Some DOCs are easing restrictions on materials and technology access, and these are good precedents that could be carried into the future. Increasing access to information and technology resources, the subject of forthcoming Ithaka S+R research, would give programs much greater flexibility in the future and provide students with a richer, more equitable educational experience. As with everything else impacted by COVID-19, we can only wait and see how things will be different after the pandemic has passed.The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison is continuing to pool and share information as well as host discussions about the current crisis and its effect on the future of higher education in prison. Those interested in learning more can check their website and COVID-19 page for current and future updates as the situation evolves.