Justice-Involved Students’ Education: The Importance of Collaboration and Communication


Correspondence-based educational courses are the only form of programming being offered in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) adult facilities during COVID-19, reaffirming the importance of collaboration with colleagues and partners around designing and delivering those courses. The density of people living and working within a correctional facility increases the risk of exposure to and the rate of spreading COVID-19. Given concerns about spreading this disease, many correctional facilities in California paused in-person interactions and programming with non-CDCR staff and moved to providing correspondence courses, which are packet-based modules that are designed to be completed mostly independently by the student. This transition caused a host of challenges with regard to access and supports for individuals who are currently incarcerated (justice-involved), explained in my previous blog. This transition also presented challenges to in-person student program providers who support justice-involved students as this was the first time they had offered correspondence courses. This post presents the strategies around collaboration and communication that interviewees discussed as supporting their efforts to effectively design and implement correspondence courses for justice-involved individuals.[1]

Designing Correspondence Courses

Collaborate with community college and CDCR staff in designing courses. This appears to be a unique window of opportunity for collaboration. Interviewees expressed that they are experiencing a lack of territoriality among partners and colleagues and a willingness to support one another in developing correspondence courses during COVID-19. Interviewees received guidance and resources from community colleges who already provide correspondence courses, such as Palo Verde Community College and Coastline Community College, and CDCR educational staff. For colleges looking to design or improve upon the design of their correspondence courses, consider:

  • engaging with a network of colleagues to solicit and offer advice and lessons learned from prior efforts; and
  • implementing an expectation and process to evaluate and assess these courses as a part of continuous improvement.

Provide opportunities for student engagement within the course. Many interviewees described that maintaining opportunities for engagement among justice-involved students, and between students and the instructor, was a priority in developing their courses. Interviewees wanted to ensure opportunities for communication and quality interaction, such as through detailed feedback on coursework. Interviewees said it is important for instructors to provide ways for the students to get to know them via their packets (e.g., including introduction letters in each packet). They also stressed the importance of developing clear course materials (e.g., syllabus, assignment instructions) to support students in making progress independently.

Engagement between students. To provide opportunities for quality engagement among justice-involved peers, consider:

  • creating assignments that provide opportunities for students to collaborate with one another or with other justice-involved people within the facility;
  • ensuring courses have a balance of work that can be completed independently and work that is engaging and collaborative;
  • embedding flexibility within assignments or tasks that require engagement or collaboration in order to adhere to COVID-19 safety protocol or outbreaks within the facility; and
  • developing curriculum with the student in mind by providing materials that resonate with students.

Engagement between students and instructor. To facilitate communication between the student and the instructor, consider:

  • establishing and communicating a process for how students can ask questions and when to expect answers to be returned (e.g., creating question cards or question forms that are included with each course packet or creating a process to receive and respond to questions at multiple points in a short time frame); and
  • ensuring instructions and directions are clear, direct, and succinct (e.g., including a schedule of what should be completed on a weekly basis to ensure students are steadily progressing through their work).

Implementing Correspondence Courses

Collaborate with staff to create a process for organizing and handling coursework. Correspondence courses in facilities rely solely on paper, making the organization, exchange, and tracking of coursework more difficult compared to in-person courses. First-time correspondence course providers quickly discovered the importance of consistency in handling the paperwork to accurately track student progress. To implement these courses more smoothly, consider:

  • troubleshooting the mechanics and delivery of information with correctional education staff prior to the academic term (e.g., discussing how students will be notified of the delivery schedule, when students can expect to receive packets, and when they will be collected and returned to college personnel);
  • regularly meeting or communicating with correctional education staff to share ideas for providing relevant and timely updates, adapting processes as obstacles arise, and collaborating to improve on existing processes as necessary; and
  • maintaining consistency as much as possible in how packets are arranged, and the delivery and distribution of packets to correctional staff, students, and college personnel.

Be adaptive and flexible with open lines of communication. While interviewees stressed the importance of preparation and planning, equally important is adaptability and flexibility. Safety protocols within correctional facilities can change quickly depending on whether or not that particular facility is experiencing an outbreak, and on the magnitude of the spread, making it difficult for courses to adhere to defined packet exchange schedules. This unpredictability makes having open lines of communication with correctional partners even more critical for navigating these obstacles smoothly. It is imperative for community colleges to continue to collaborate with colleagues and correctional partners to share lessons learned and strategies for correspondence course development and implementation given that it is unclear when in-person courses will resume.

While COVID-19 has exacerbated barriers to education for justice-involved students and has resurfaced the importance of continued collaboration and clear communication among partners and with students, it has also presented community colleges and California State University campuses with opportunities for re-envisioning how they deliver courses to these students. These opportunities will be covered in the final post within this series, “Justice-Involved Students’ Education: Barriers to Expanding Programs, but Opportunities for Future Progress.”

[1] This series uses interviews with nine student program providers, who serve justice-involved students, from the California Community College and California State University systems to understand how COVID-19 is impacting this traditionally underserved population.