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COVID Forces Major Changes to Prison Education Programs

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Chaffey College
/
California News Service

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. -- Just like traditional colleges, California's education programs for people in prison have had to make huge changes in the wake of the pandemic, even as Congress decides whether to make permanent the program that sustains them.

 
Robert Rundquist, interim dean of institutional effectiveness and intersegmental partnerships for Chaffey College in Southern California, said his institution has transitioned to a correspondence course model until it's safe to return to in-person learning.

"Previously, faculty would go in and teach their classes face-to-face. We also had tutoring centers and computer labs, as well as counselors," he said. "And because of the pandemic, we've no longer been able to access the facility for those types of opportunities."

Multiple California schools work with prisons to offer associates' and bachelor's degrees to incarcerated students, including Cal State LA and Southwestern Community College in San Diego. In April, the Trump administration expanded the Obama-era Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program to invite 67 more schools nationwide to join, including Sacramento State University.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted recently to make the Second Chance program permanent as part of an appropriations bill, but it still needs to go to the Senate -- and then the president. Rundquist said communities benefit when incarcerated people are given the chance to improve their skills and earn a degree.

"For every dollar spent in incarcerated education, $5 are saved in other state costs for incarcerating individuals," he said. "Without the skills to re-enter, to be a thriving individual, many students will be reoffending when they return to their community."

Over the past few years, more than 12,000 students in prisons nationwide have participated in the Second Chance Pell Grant program.

The text of the appropriations bill is online at rules.house.gov.

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Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.

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