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COVID Shut Down Most Prison Education Programs. Here's How Incarcerated Students Have Kept Learning

Spencer Tritt

Over 10,000 people incarcerated in Illinois prisons havetested positive for COVID-19 during the pandemic -- that’s one out of every three people serving time. Incarcerated students cycling into quarantine and isolation made it impossible for education services to continue in person.

Rebecca Ginsburg is the director of the Education Justice Project -- which provides onsite programming and resources at the Danville Correctional Center through the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

She said it’s been very difficult knowing these students are at risk and being unable to have any real contact with them.

“We know that people have died in prisons across Illinois. I have colleagues who have lost students to COVID,” she said. “Thank goodness we haven't today lost any EJP students to COVID, but the pandemic isn’t over yet.”

Ginsburg said people might assume they could do online learning, like other students, but there is none for prison education. Other programs have ceased completely, but the Education Justice Project was able to keep some courses going through paper correspondence.

Danville Correctional Center allowed the EJP to drop off assignments along with blank paper to write on. Students complete the work and then, two weeks later, Project staff pick them up, grade them and drop off more two weeks after that. That means if students in prison have a question for a professor, it takes a month to hear back.

They had to stop running the correspondence courses in the fall due to case rates inside the prison, which Ginsburg said was the right decision by the Department of Corrections. 

“We didn't want to do anything that jeopardized our student’s wellbeing," said Ginsburg, "whether that involved giving them additional contact with correctional officers -- who were the main carriers of COVID -- or requiring them to compromise their quarantine.” 

The Project’s been able to restart the courses this spring for their 75 students. Ginsburg said there are more who hope to join post-pandemic, but there’s already a waitlist. There’s also a lack of opportunity for incarcerated students outside of the Chicago area.

Dr. Sharon Varallo is trying to address that opportunity gap. She’s a professor at Augustana College and director of its new grant-funded prison education program, which she said will -- hopefully -- launch in the summer -- depending on the pandemic.

Along with a few colleagues, she’s been helping teach at the East Moline Correctional Facility as part of the Graduated Release Initiative and as a volunteer.

She first got involved with prison education work after a family member was charged with a violent crime they didn’t commit -- a charge that was later overturned. Through the arduous and expensive process, she learned how much education helps reduce re-incarceration.

“Criminal justice reform and higher ed in prison, in particular, are one of the very few areas in this country that have bipartisan support," she said, "because every indicator says that it is worth it.”

According to a study from nonprofit research organization RAND, every $1 invested in prison education saves $5 in costs over the first three years after a person’s release.

Varallo taught a learning inquiry class at East Moline that she normally teaches first-year Augustana students. She said they were often surprised they could understand the same material as college students.

“For the most part," said Varallo, "they were not used to being treated as someone who was capable of learning.” 

Jason Mahn is a professor of religion at Augustana who taught people at East Moline just before and after their release. Students read and discussed short stories and poems about justice and purpose. He said his classes often delve into theology and life, but it’s even easier to cut to the core of those conversations with incarcerated students.

“To have students think about justice and injustices of our system and to convey their own stories -- most of the men in the room were from marginalized populations,” said Mahn. “To hear them tell those stories and learn about justice, from their point of view, just so quickly went to life and death issues.”

They also hope to hold an inside-out-style class where traditional and incarcerated students learn in the same room. Varallo and her colleagues are in the application process now and will select 10 students for the Augustana full-credit degree program.

“It will be hard,” she said. “But those 10 people will set themselves up for a very hard experience, college is hard. But it's going to be one of the best things that they've ever done. It'll be winning the lottery.”

Rebecca Ginsburg at the Education Justice Project said the pandemic also gave them the opportunity to innovate. The Project used grant funds to create instructional videos available to anyone in the prison through institutional TV channels.

“Many of the instructors are formerly incarcerated, they might have trouble getting clearance to teach within the prison itself," said Ginsburg, "but now they can share their wisdom and their perspectives via the video.” 

Ginsburg hopes news attention of unsafe prison conditions during COVID -- along with renewed conversations about racial justice -- will push the expansion of prison education after the pandemic.