Written by Jennie Long, May 27, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended our normal way of life, yet people found new ways to live their lives. Businesses, hospitals, schools, restaurants, retail stores, religious organizations, and more, found new ways to stay in business, provide health care, teach students, and serve the needs of society.

The same is true for correctional facilities. Close living conditions allowed the virus to spread quickly throughout these facilities. In Ohio’s correctional facilities, as of June 2021 there were close to 10,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 2,000 deaths among inmates. There were also nearly 5,000 cases and 11 deaths among staff.

Barber Instructor Betty Crawford (“Big Mamma”) teaches inmates at the London Correctional Institution, London, Ohio. Photo provided by the Columbus Dispatch.

Finding new ways to meet the needs of the incarcerated while providing adequate supervision and keeping the virus at bay was challenging. Implementing protocols for social distancing resulted in most educational, apprenticeship and vocational programs being prohibited from meeting in-person, leaving some to wonder if the programs could continue without face-to-face instruction.

Many of the classes are hands-on and require the use of technical equipment, such as Barbering, Cosmetology, and Masonry, which made implementation nearly impossible.

For those unable to return to a previous career, and those without a career or skills prior to incarceration, new skills are needed. In many cases this includes a trade skill like mechanics, plumbing, construction, or manufacturing, making instruction in these trades especially important.

Innovative Ways to Deliver Instruction

Each correctional facility had different protocols based on the number of COVID-19 cases in their respective area, and individual institutional leadership decisions. In some institutions classes were split into smaller groups that would meet on alternate days to facilitate social distancing.  Some career tech program instructors continued teaching through correspondence using prepared instructional packets delivered to students which were later returned to the instructors for grading.  

Ohio has been slow to integrate technology into prisons for the delivery of instruction for online courses. However, a new program using Chromebooks for online education recently became an option. Instructors loaded content on the Chromebooks, gave them to students to complete assignments, and then the Chromebooks were returned to the instructors for grading. Most corrections facilities limit inmate connectivity to the internet, and this Chromebook project used firewalls to restrict access to certain URLs, allowing students to download only supplemental materials and view websites that supported the curriculum.

An inmate works on a piece of furniture through a corrections education training program.

Dwight Anstaett, CETE Corrections Education Resource Specialist said that “The Ohio Central School System and Youth Services embraced technology in ways that they have not fully implemented yet. I know it will move faster over time and will grow from all the lessons learned during this time.”

Systems of Supports for Ohio’s Corrections Instructors

The Center on Education and Training for Employment has a long tradition in supporting instructors who teach in correctional facilities. Ohio is well-known for implementing some of the best career-technical education programs in the nation due to the quality and time investment of the Corrections Career Technical Education Program that CETE partners with.

Already facing a lack of resources and limitations in the prison settings, instructors were asked to improvise on their instructional delivery methods because of the challenges created by the pandemic. Through the support of the Corrections Career Technical Education program staff at CETE, they were able to adapt to the ongoing changes. Anstaett described that when he could not meet in person with the instructors, he would hold meetings with them via videoconference or phone to serve as a mentor and discuss their coursework, new ways to implement the curriculum, assignments, and help register for subsequent courses.  

The instructors who teach in correctional facilities also learned the importance of supporting one another. Becky Parker, CETE Program Lead of Learning, School Leadership & Professional Development, facilitated an intense two- and a half-week summer workshop on the topic of teaching and classroom management via videoconference. This was offered to anyone new to the teacher licensure program and attending The Ohio State University. During this workshop, the participants realized just how important relationships are in building a network and providing support for each other, not just in the classroom and not just about the content, but for the whole person.

“The biggest gain that we collectively have learned…across all areas is the importance of relationships and how learning happens greater when relationships are solid and students know that they are cared about, and that their needs are being met. If you do not have that piece, the learning does not seem to happen.” Parker said.

Students inside a corrections facility earn their credentials.

Transitioning Students to the Community

As Anstaett explained, re-entry planners and institutions facilitate the transition of students to the community. As part of the transition, career tech students receive a Career Passport when they are released. The Career Passport is a portfolio showing their accomplishments and earned credentials, such as licensing for barbering, Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) credentials for automotive service, or National Center for Construction and Education Research (NCCER) credentials for construction trades, transcripts, and other records, to help them find employment.

After release, Anstaett said there are also programs available to help the newly restored citizens look at their career goals and determine the training needed to help them achieve their goals. The program also follows them for a period to help them stay on track. In addition, some programs work to place them where they have the best chance of success on the outside. This might include helping them find employment or housing in environments different from where they came from, so they may be less likely to reengage with negative influences.  

Participating in Programs to Reduce Sentences

There is a growing movement in California, Ohio, Indiana, and Maryland to implement or broaden policies and legislation to give inmates time off their sentences when they attain educational milestones.

In Ohio inmates can earn days off their sentence if they participate in educational, vocational, substance abuse prevention treatment or other programming. An offender can earn one- or five-days credit toward a prison term, through productive participation in an eligible program, for each month they complete. This can potentially reduce a sentence by up to 8%.

Education as a Strong Link to Lower Recidivism

Signs showing the choices of recidivism and rehabilitation.

The pandemic put an extraordinary amount of stress on the entire world. For those individuals who are not fortunate enough to have coping mechanisms and support systems in place, that stress manifested in negative ways leading to higher recidivism among former inmates. Studies show that nearly 1 in 3 Ohioans return to state prison within three years of release. In 2015 the recidivism rate was 27.5% but that increased to 32.7% in 2020.

A University of Cincinnati study shows a positive correlation between participation in education programs and not reoffending. Anstaett said among inmates who participated in education programs, the recidivism rate is 27%, considerably lower than the overall rate.

Those who have been involved with the justice system may have trouble in finding and keeping employment. Participation in education and training programs not only helps the time pass in what can be a lonely existence, it helps to prepare the individuals to be productive members of their community, which is the ultimate goal. Inmates who successfully complete education and skilled trades programs in prison have a higher rate of successful employment after being released.

Even though the pandemic wreaked havoc in everyone’s life, corrections centers and facilities were hit particularly hard. With the support provided to instructors by CETE’s Corrections Career Technical Education Program, those participating in the educational programs were able to continue their journey to a better future.