Justice-Involved Students’ Education: Understanding Barriers Exacerbated by COVID-19

Justice-Involved Students’ Education: Understanding Barriers Exacerbated by COVID-19


California’s public colleges and universities cannot change the significant racial disparities embedded within the state’s criminal justice system, but by providing education opportunities to individuals who are currently incarcerated (justice-involved), they can reduce recidivism for this population and serve proportionally more students of color. Black individuals are overrepresented in both the incarcerated population as well as the population of people who are contracting and dying from the coronavirus across the United States, making it a health and social justice issue. This blog highlights the need for colleges and universities to examine and evaluate their efforts to provide services for this population in the wake of COVID-19, including adapting course development, delivery and related student supports to help close access gaps statewide.

In 2014, the Governor signed Senate Bill 1391, enabling the California Community Colleges to offer and be reimbursed for face-to-face college courses inside correctional facilities. In 2014, San Quentin was the only prison in California that offered face-to-face college courses to justice-involved people. By 2017, 34 of the 35 state prisons were doing so. While most justice-involved individuals in a state or federal prison are not eligible for federal Pell Grants, the California College Promise Grant covers community college tuition for every low-income student in the state, including individuals currently involved in the justice system. In 2020, COVID-19 changed the way community college courses and student support services could be carried out in correctional facilities; since courses are now structured as independent, packet-based work, there are opportunities to offer classes at a much larger scale, but logistical challenges and limited engagement can negatively affect student’s progress.

Currently, there are:

  • 16,000 individuals within the California justice system (approximately 10% of California’s justice-involved population) enrolled in college courses,
  • 6,500 justice-involved students in over 400 community college courses, and
  • 18 community colleges providing courses, all designed on ADT pathways[1], in 34 of the 35 state prisons.2

At EdInsights, I am part of an evaluation team that has surveyed over 500 community college faculty, staff, and administrators who attended professional development events sponsored by the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative through the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. This included participants from a statewide summit focused on serving students who were previously involved with the justice system. In 2019, I authored the blog, From Incarceration to College Graduation: How Colleges Can Support the Education Goals of Formerly Incarcerated Students to share implementation models and strategies for student programs serving students with prior justice system involvement from and with the field. As these on-campus programs, and entire higher education institutions, have pivoted their processes during COVID-19, so have programs serving students currently involved in the justice system; these pivots, and their impact on opportunities for justice-involved students, are the focus of the three-part Justice-Involved Students’ Education series.[2]

In the second blog, I will share tips and strategies for transitioning in-person courses to correspondence courses, which are packet-based modules that are designed to be completed mostly independently by the student. Finally, in the third blog, I will share potential advances in serving justice-involved students in the wake of COVID-19. I outline COVID-19 context in the criminal justice system, access to courses and coursework, and student supports during COVID-19, in order to explain how this pandemic has magnified the barriers to education justice-involved individuals’ face.

COVID-19 Context in the Criminal Justice System

COVID-19 has exacerbated an already thin infrastructure for justice-involved individuals to take college classes. There is currently one bachelor’s degree program operating at a single facility. The density of people living and working in a correctional facility makes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s strategy of avoiding close contact with others difficult to implement with fidelity putting justice-involved people at heightened risks of exposure to and spreading of the virus throughout the facility. Correctional facilities in California suspended all outside programming and contact to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus requiring all in-person college courses to either suspend operation until it is safe to re-enter the facility or pivot operations to provide correspondence courses. Most of the in-person community college programs decided to transition to offering correspondence courses for the first time. There was a proposal to launch bachelor’s programs at seven additional facilities in 2020, but funding was removed from the Governor’s budget. While two additional bachelor’s programs are hoping to launch this winter, bringing the total to three potential state universities offering bachelor’s programs at five facilitates, overall progress to expand bachelor’s degree opportunities has been severely stalled. COVID-19 has exacerbated the access gaps for this population even further, making it critical to understand the barriers and the impacts of the coronavirus on justice-involved students.

Access to Courses and Coursework During COVID-19

Due to COVID-19, all in-person college classes were cancelled and there are no online courses available through community colleges for justice-involved students. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has temporarily paused entry into facilities from any non-correctional staff, including in-person visitation and programming, and has restricted movement within correctional facilities by limiting who can access particular areas of the facility to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Since correctional facilities have not created ways for justice-involved students to take community college courses virtually, community college courses were therefore transitioned from in-person to correspondence courses. Some courses are difficult to transition and offer through correspondence, making those unavailable to justice-involved students during COVID-19. For example, one community college requires incarcerated justice-involved students to take a student success course when they first enroll, but since rapport and relationship building with the instructor is a crucial aspect of this course, the college decided not to offer the course virtually and subsequently not enroll any new students during the pandemic. College personnel and providers cannot deliver course materials to students themselves and instead must coordinate with CDCR educational staff to facilitate the flow of packets between themselves and the students. College staff often do not know if or when students receive their packets, and in instances of a COVID-19 outbreak, all contact between correctional and non-correctional staff could be paused, potentially requiring college personnel to deliver students’ packets through the prison mail system, which can slow the exchange process even further. These processes could affect students’ ability to accomplish coursework by delaying when they can access their work. Justice-involved students have additional benefits from enrolling in and completing higher educational coursework as the completion of educational programming could result in earning Milestone Completion Credits, which can advance a students’ release from prison date or advance their parole hearing data. Delaying academic progress slows both justice-involved students’ educational progress, but can also negatively impact their release.

Student Supports During COVID-19

Since many correctional facilities have not created ways for justice-involved students to receive supports such as advising, tutoring, and mentoring virtually, colleges have had to pause these services during COVID-19. Some justice-involved student programs support their students in planning for parole hearings and release by preparing or providing any materials necessary; some programs also ensure that students have the materials and resources needed to continue their education upon being paroled or released. During COVID-19, students may be paroled or released without community college personnel being able to support them in developing plans for after their release or involvement with the justice system, making it difficult to both track where the student ends up and support them in continuing their academic journey.

Understanding these barriers facing justice-involved students is a necessary first step to developing opportunities that will benefit a significant proportion of justice-involved individuals, and that can work toward a more racially just California. New ways of service delivery, along with improved collaboration, coordination, and communication between colleges, universities, and CDCR staff can support the development of course and program offerings that are better tailored for justice-involved individuals, and can be offered at a larger scale, thus changing opportunities for thousands of people. I will present some of the strategies for transitioning to correspondence courses shared from the field in the next blog in this series Justice-Involved Students’ Education: The Importance of Collaboration and Communication.”

[1] Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) is a degree offered through the California community colleges. It gives students an opportunity to earn a saved spot at participating four-year California and non-California universities.

[2] This series uses interviews with nine incarcerated student program providers from the California Community College and California State University systems, with Brant Choate, the Director of Rehabilitative Programming for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Rebecca Silbert, Senior Director of Rising Scholars Network to understand how COVID-19 is impacting this historically underserved population.

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