Colleges Behind Bars Are Adjusting to Coronavirus Constraints

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Like colleges across the country, programs that until recent weeks operated classes inside prison campuses are scrambling to find alternatives to in-person teaching as they adjust to the new coronovirus pandemic.

The solution for most traditional colleges is relatively straightforward—move traditional classes online. But many prison education programs face technological and bureaucratic challenges to continuing the academic term for thousands of incarcerated students.

More than 60 colleges offer inmate students the chance to earn bachelor’s or associate degrees through Second Chance Pell, a federal pilot program the Obama administration initiated in 2015 to award financial aid for college classes in prisons.

Halting the spread of coronavirus among inmates—who make up one of the populations most vulnerable to the pandemic—has become an urgent task for prisoner advocates. New restrictions on access to prisons added in response to the virus have pushed college program providers to find creative ways to finish the semester. And like courses at regular college campuses, it’s unclear when in-person classes will return.

Sheila Meiman, the director of prison education at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, said she’s already sent an order for 75,000 pages of printing to Staples to assemble course packs for students.

“I’m physically driving to all the facilities and dropping them off,” she said.

Plans call for the college to eventually deliver video lectures too and find classroom technology for professors to have direct contact with students even if they can’t visit the prison.

Technology Shapes Adaptation

How easily Second Chance programs can adapt to the new circumstances depends on the extent to which they already used technology or online instruction in their courses. Because of prison security restrictions or lack of financial resources, many programs like those operated by Raritan Valley used an entirely face-to-face teaching model.

The outbreak of the virus has meant “a moment of fear and caution above all,” said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which halted in-person classes in New York prisons even before the state restricted access in late March. Educators believe the chance to earn a degree behind bars is critical but they can’t risk introducing the virus into those facilities themselves, he said.

Jails and prisons across the country have released several thousand people early from prison to reduce overcrowding that could contribute to spread of the disease. And the federal Bureau of Prisons said it would start a 14-day lockdown Wednesday.

Kenner said there will be “a lot of improvisation” among prison education programs to help students continue classes, likely involving mail delivery of course materials or video lectures—the kind of methods that resemble traditional correspondence courses.

“Any time a semester is interrupted for reasons that have nothing to do with the actions of the student, it’s the college’s responsibility to help see them through the crisis,” he said.

Some Second Chance Pell colleges like Ashland University in Ohio have seen few interruptions to classes so far because most teaching already took place via distance learning using tablet technology, said Ashland spokeswoman Tamara Mosser. A limited number of in-person courses run by the college are moving to distance education, she said.

Correspondence courses generally are more self-paced and have limited interaction between students and their instructor. Those courses aren’t eligible for Pell Grants through the Second Chance program. Advocates have asked whether the Education Department will waive rules restricting correspondence courses, and the agency didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it’s made a decision.

Long-Term Impacts

Monique Ositelu, a senior policy analyst at New America who studies prison education, said disruptions from the virus could offer a chance for more innovation in how those programs operate. But she said distance education would ideally add to, not replace, in-person instruction.

Supporters of education behind bars fear what the coronavirus could mean over the long-term for in-person access to prisons as well as momentum for restoring college instruction in more prisons.

“A major component of college in prison programs is the actual interactions they have with professors and with their peers. And now with coronavirus, a lot of institutions are not going into prisons any longer,” Ositelu said. “It has a lot of unintended consequences. It’s going to impact the culture of facilities.”

Education and criminal justice overhaul advocates have helped win bipartisan support over the past year for legislation that would overturn a quarter century ban on Pell Grants in prisons. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said last year that she would expand the number of colleges in the Second Chance pilot—plans that may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Advocates say it’s critical to maintain the momentum behind both the pilot program and prison education opportunities more broadly even during a public health crisis.

“A lot of people have credits they want to get transferred or degrees they want to finish,” said Stephanie Bazell, director of policy and advocacy at Community and College Fellowship. “It’s also important because it provides this sense of community among people that’s really invaluable.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Robin Meszoly at

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