The COVID-19 pandemic proves education, in some states such as Indiana, is a privilege and not equally accessible to everyone. Although school systems were able to develop ways to continue providing education during the pandemic, one group of students has been left in dark: the incarcerated.
Inmate education contains multiple paths, that often start from earning a GED. But in some cases, inmates are able to pursue college courses. Participating in education and training programs while incarcerated expands post-release economic opportunities significantly, according to a Vera Institute of Justice study. The study found that as a result of earning an education behind bars, those released found employment rates, could work more hours, were offered better wages.
Education programs in jail and prison have also been proven to lower rates of recidivism. An American Correctional Association study from 2010 found that the rate of recidivism for incarcerated people in Indiana decreased 20% for those who earned a GED and 44% for those who acquired a Bachelor’s degree while incarcerated.
Although earning a degree has been show to produce such great benefits, both the the offenders and to society, access to education has been severely limited in recent years. Federal Pell Grants were once the primary source of funding for college education programs in prisons, but the 1994 crime bill — an act which led to the proliferation of mass incarceration — severely limited their use.
In 1991, 14% of incarcerated individuals enrolled in college level courses, but by 2004, enrollment had fallen to just 7%. The Vera Institute of Justice found 64% of incarcerated people are academically eligible for post-secondary education, but the federal program serves only a maximum of 12,000 students. A lack of funding for prison education programs contributes directly to the cycle of poverty and later recidivism.
In Indiana, the Department of Correction has strictly limited in-person visitors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but prisoners are continuing education through virtual learning. IDOC has expanded the use of tablets and kiosks in Indiana prisons for educational, therapeutic and vocational uses. However, not all jails offer online education. Many have haunted all of the education programs since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Anthony Hibbert, a correctional officer at the Monroe County Jail there said the jail maintains strict restrictions on allowing the public to enter the jail. As a result, the facility has terminated all of it’s live changing education programs.
They aren’t unique in this aspect since this began, there have been reports from around the country that inmates are being denied access to educational and religious programs that were once offered. But why? Certainly the technology exists today to teach from a distance. In this very jail, Monroe County offers iPads are offered to incarcerated people participating in the New Beginnings recovery program. If such resources are available to addicts, then why not use the same technology to teach those who want to learn?
Similar problems can be found at other facilities. Chris Rodal, a GED instructor at the Wayne County jail in eastern Indiana, taught classes in the morning and afternoon two days a week before the pandemic, but since the COVID-19 pandemic began, education of incarcerated individuals was deemed non-essential. In-person instruction was prohibited and online instruction was not offered, Rodal said. All programs coordinated by outside inviduals, such as substance abuse counseling and GED education were eliminated. And it’s not like they have other opportunities. Since the start of the pandemic, those incarcerated at the Wayne County jail have often only allowed out of their cell one hour per day.
In a world made more difficult by changing circumstances, it’s more important than ever to prepare inmates for the outside world. People who are incarcerated deserve equal access to education.