Moving Classes Online Is Hard—Especially in Prisons

Higher education in prison programs get creative to keep classes going.

A blinking, weak Wi-Fi symbol in a prison cell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

The decision to stop sending volunteers to give classes in California prisons was a difficult one for Ernst Fenelon Jr., the senior program coordinator of the Prison Education Project.

Fenelon, who was incarcerated in California from 1991 to 2005, understood what stopping classes would mean for the project’s students inside: isolation, uncertainty, and a lack of positive activities to fill their time.

Though he was worried about participants’ physical health, Fenelon told me, “I was also concerned for the mental health safety of those incarcerated, in the sense of keeping their hope alive, keeping them connected to positive programming.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t leave many options on the table. The project stopped in-person classes on March 12, and shortly after, California prisons closed to all outside programing.

Beyond prisons, the coronavirus-forced transition to remote learning has highlighted and exacerbated many of the glaring inequalities that were already baked into the U.S. education system. Driven by disparities in access to internet and personal tech devices, the digital divide leaves people isolated, often unable to access information they need to keep themselves safe, much less continue education or work. The consequences of this divide will reverberate for years to come, and we will all suffer for it.

But if the transition to remote learning in the outside world has been complex and fraught, that same shift has been even more so inside prisons and jails. Higher education in prison programs typically involve sending outside volunteers—often university students or professors—inside prisons to conduct supplemental educational programming not offered by the prison. In college, I participated in a program that offered classes varying from biology to gender studies to career prep. Oftentimes, these programs allow incarcerated students to earn university credit. Perhaps most importantly, they provide a connection between people on the outside and people on the inside, breaking down the wall between “us” and “them,” if even momentarily.

Both among different prison systems and within individual prison facilities, access to technology is—and has always been—widely disparate. “Technology means so many different things in prison,” said Mary Gould, the director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. In one prison, technology might mean coding classes and a podcasting lab, whereas in another, you’re lucky to get closed-circuit television and projectors from the ’80s. But these disparities were easier to get around when classes were held in person.

Now, educators have been forced to get creative in order to continue providing educational resources for their students, but they also worry about setting precedents that may affect their ability to conduct in-person programming in the future. Underlying all of that is a chilling reality: Incarcerated people are housed in facilities where social distancing is often impossible, hygiene and health care access are lacking, and populations are disproportionately vulnerable to the virus. The Marshall Project (disclosure: I used to work there) confirmed “at least 9,437 people in prison had tested positive for the illness” as of April 22.

“A very real concern for us is the health and safety of our students right now, and I think I would be remiss if I said that education were the foremost thing on my mind,” said Molly Lasagna, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative.

Some programs have moved to a correspondence learning model, mailing incarcerated students paper assignments they can complete and send back. Others are creating video lectures and mass broadcasting them via prison television systems. Programs in facilities with online learning capabilities (usually through physical computer labs) are in some cases able to use learning management systems like Canvas or Blackboard to keep classes going. Student clerks or teaching assistants, who help facilitate programs from the inside, have taken on additional responsibilities in sharing information and facilitating peer-to-peer learning. Some programs are communicating with students via telephone or kiosk- or tablet-based electronic messaging systems, but such communication usually comes at a price. Still other programs are exploring options for conducting live classes via Zoom or Skype.

Renford Reese, the founder and director of the Prison Education Project, is working on trying to launch a pilot study in California to conduct programming using Zoom, with the help of existing wireless access points installed throughout the facilities. They’d have to start small, he said, to ensure that students could maintain a safe distance from one another while participating in the class. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it could be a way to continue to deliver content that is more engaging and personalized than the alternative, he told me.

The Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative submitted a similar proposal to use Zoom to deliver instruction within facilities, but it was ultimately denied by the state department of corrections, said Lasagna.

THEI works with community college systems to run courses inside three facilities across the state. Two of those three sites have internet computer labs in them, which has allowed the program to transition instruction online, with students using the computer labs in small groups once a week to access content and complete assignments. In the third facility, said Lasagna, courses have transitioned to a correspondence model—with professors sending in content and students returning assignments.

One major area for concern is that incarcerated students with more financial resources will have more access to educational resources, and those who don’t will be left behind. A group of organizations, led by PEN America, recently released an open letter to the CEOs of the two companies that dominate the prison communication and technology landscape—Global Tel Link and Aventiv Technologies (the parent company to Securus Technologies and JPay)—demanding they stop charging for access to educational content via their devices, including e-books. The letter also demands the suspension of charges for communication related to educational programming.

“Incarcerated people should not have to pay a financial price for continuing their education even while under lockdown,” the letter reads.

James Tager is the deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America and coordinated the open letter. He told me that in the coming months, it will be important to pay close attention to budgets for prison libraries and other educational programming. As economic troubles whittle down budgets for jails and prisons, these types of programs can often be the first on the chopping block, he said.

Last year, Tager authored a report on access to literature and other educational materials in prisons, finding that “the book-restriction regulations within the United States carceral system represent the largest book ban policy in the United States.” The report raises concerns surrounding the cost of e-readers to incarcerated people and their families and the possibility that the transition to e-readers in prison may be used as justification to limit access to literature, whether through donation programs, individual purchasing, or prison libraries.

Fears about corrections systems using expanded technology as a justification to substitute person-to-person services long predated the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 2014, Emma Coleman wrote for Future Tense, more than 500 facilities had implemented video visitation, in many cases shutting down off-screen visits in the process. But the pandemic has certainly amplified those fears.

“Across the field there is real concern about the move toward these types of secured technology devices—whether it’s tablets or other sort of pay-for-use technologies—becoming the preferred method,” said Gould, of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

For years, Gould said, programs have made the argument to departments of corrections that their instruction can’t be delivered remotely. But from a prison administration standpoint, facilitating in-person instruction requires more resources and presents a certain risk. That means educators have to worry about what their actions to adapt to COVID-19 will mean for how they’re able to operate after the pandemic—thinking through, Gould said, whether they “might be disproving their own arguments about what’s actually possible.” The risk of facilities being reluctant to reinstate in-person programming seems even more palpable given impending budget cuts.

Fenelon, of California’s Prison Education Project, said the possibility of eliminating or reducing in-person instruction is of great concern to him.

“For me when I was incarcerated, the idea of people volunteering … it was like the community, it was like the outside world being able to come in, and it reminded me that I get to go out,” he said. “So it was this connection that mattered to me, and a lot of what helped me sustain my transformation to return back to a productive citizen of society.”

This sense of connection is transformative not only for students on the inside, but also for the volunteers who work with them. I know this firsthand: The three years I spent teaching writing and journalism in Arizona prisons were easily the highlight of my time in college. I learned about the U.S. criminal justice system in a way that would have never been possible from the outside. Through editing my students’ work, I grew myself as a writer. I knew how much the volunteer-programming ecosystem had given to my own incarcerated family member, and it was powerful to feel like I could, in a small way, contribute to that.

Looking to the future, Fenelon said he hopes this moment encourages a more nuanced discussion of the ways technology can be used to expand educational access and quality while not chipping away at the sense of community that flourishes in an in-person classroom. Reese said he hopes it will lead to technological advances within prison systems.

“It compels a system that is out of step with technology. … [I]t almost forces them to expedite the way they deliver content to their residents,” said Reese.

Underlying all of the discussion of how programs should adapt to the present and what risks and opportunities exist for the future, there’s a central question, said Gould: “What is the role of a higher education in prison program?”

The answer to that question becomes clear in educators’ responses to this crisis—their communicating with students and their family members, facilitating channels of information in and out of prisons; their persistence and creativity in providing educational resources however they can; their advocacy for students’ safety, manifested through fundraisers and care packages and pushing for the early release of vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 has evidenced that “the role of a higher education in prison program was never just the classroom,” said Gould.

That’s a role technology can supplement—but never replace.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.