Reflections from the Outside: Teaching Inside in the Time of Corona

Teaching in the Inmate Scholars Program

“MERS Coronavirus Particles” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Well…an already challenging job has become even more so. As I am writing this, we have 1,005 cases of Coronavirus in Kern County. Because it takes so long to test for the virus and sometimes there are no symptoms or the symptoms are basically the same symptoms as allergies (which we all have in Kern County) or a regular cold, it is hard to tell where the virus is or how many people have been affected. When it gets into the prison system, it will spread very rapidly, so we have been kicked out for our own safety as well as the safety of our students. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) web site, there are currently 316 confirmed cases in the prison system. Before the first cases were reported or we even had a confirmed case in Kern County, we were barred from entering the prison. There was an email sent that specifically told us that we are not allowed inside, and if we attempted to go anyway, all of the prisons have been informed to refuse to let us in. We have such amazing and committed professors that it was deemed necessary to inform us that we would be caught if we tried to sneak in to teach. I can only imagine trying to get in there with a stack of homework assignments and office supplies.

But now that we are unable to go inside, how are we going continue to teach? Prisons are prone to frequent lockdowns, which means we cannot go inside on a regular basis, but usually the lockdown lifts, and then we can go inside the next week or the week after. Just a side note: a prison lockdown does not actually mean that there was a riot or some other dangerous situation. It could have been a riot, or it could be that the CDCR decided to conduct a random search. We are not always informed about the reason for the lockdown. However, in this current situation, we do know the reason for it, and instead of missing a few classes, we are not going to be able to go inside for the rest of the semester. How do we make sure that learning is still happening and that our students can still get the credit for all the work they have done?

I was on a conference call recently with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. I was amazed at all the different programs all around the country, and it seemed that every prison had its own system, rules, and technology. Some had their own television channel and some prisons had tablets that could use an email system, so the students could contact the instructors. There were some facilities that had Canvas (the software platform that my school uses), but it was only set up as an internal system with no internet access. It was amazing the different ways instructors were teaching inside. It was also amazing the dedication these instructors had for continuing education even in these circumstances. One educator (who had been incarcerated at one time) said that our students were even more vulnerable to some of the consequences of this situation than the students on campus because of the prison setting. These students will be more isolated and will be stuck inside their cells with nothing to do. Visitations have stopped, and they will have no communication with the outside world. This lack of interaction will increase their trauma. One solution that was suggested is that we write letters as part of our teaching to make sure that our students know that we are still on the outside and fighting for them and their education.

At my institution, we tried putting together packets and picking up their homework each week. This ended up not working for the English classes in particular. (It has worked in some of the other classes.) Many of my students did not have the opportunity to turn in their assignments because of a lack of mobility inside. They had their work; they just couldn’t turn it in, so we could not provide feedback to the students on their writing. The facility suggested we just assign essays and then grade them at the end. My colleague and I decided that this would not give the inmates an equitable learning experience. I can assign three essays and then grade them at the end, but all three essays will have the same problems, and the likelihood that the writing will improve or that they will be able to pass the class decreases with a model like that.

My fellow instructor and I decided to give our students an excused withdrawal instead and to try to pick it up again in the fall. We could have given them an incomplete, but usually an incomplete means that all the learning of the semester has already happened and all the student needs to do is finish a paper or an exam. We were not in that situation. We were still teaching them how to write their essays. It would not have been fair to grade their work when half of the teaching had not been accomplished. We were also not receiving their work or their questions on a regular basis, so we could not really continue to teach or provide feedback. We hope that we will be allowed back inside in the Fall so that we could start the semester over again. I am working with my program to ensure that I can teach the same class over again in the Fall so that my students do not feel like the work they have done was wasted effort. If not, we hope that the process for getting our packets and communication inside the prison will be smoother or that more technology will be allowed inside to better facilitate teaching these classes.

No one knows how long this is going to last or if it will reoccur in the Fall. We (all educators everywhere) are going to have to be more flexible than we have ever been before to continue to do the best we can for our students. A writing center colleague has dubbed me Professor Gumby mostly because of my flexibility this semester. Flexibility is not my default setting, but I am going to try to live up to my new nickname.

Sara Wallace teaches at Bakersfield College with a focus on Inmate education. She has a MA in American and British Literature from Mills College.

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