Experiencing Covid in Prison
MATT H., IOWA
Once upon a time, I was trudging through a forty-five-year prison sentence alone, when I was suddenly introduced to the pursuit of higher education through the University of Iowa Liberal Arts Behind Bars college program, as well as the community that comes with that. I quickly fell in love with the pursuit and the people, and my days, weeks, and months began to flick past. I went from thinking my sentence would never end, to not ever thinking about time at all (except for when assignments were due). I spent the majority of my mornings and afternoons engaged in class work, academic conversations, taking notes, reading, writing essays, and taking exams, while my evenings consisted of basketball, softball, soccer, and handball (and occasionally sand volleyball). The first eight years of my bid were like a barren desert of torturous reruns, day after day of nothingness, repeated on a never-ending loop. When compared to my experience of college in prison, those first years seem like a different planet.
Higher education opened new points of view for me, and new ways of thinking in general. It offered the opportunity to have new conversations with new people, and richer relationships with new and old acquaintances. It allowed me to consider new outlooks that I had never imagined before, and to rethink some of my long-held beliefs (that turned out to be flawed). Not only did higher ed change my perspective, but I also gained a confidence and a feeling of hope that previously didn’t exist inside me—neither in prison nor before prison. For the first time in my life I had some real purpose and direction. What started as a couple classes for the sake of personal enrichment (and killing some time), turned into pursuing an actual degree and a tectonic shift in lifestyle and behavior.
Then came the coronavirus, or Covid-19. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough and complete derailment of life as I had come to know it.
The biggest impact I felt was the interruption of college classes, because the Department of Corrections (DOC) had to ban all civilian guests from coming into the prison. That meant the professors, instructors, and other university volunteers were no longer allowed to enter, which meant physical class-time was suspended indefinitely. No more “community,” and time began to slow down again in here. Teachers scrambled to get their classes published in ICON, the University of Iowa’s online learning platform, and our program director scrambled to get logins and passwords for all the students. Keep in mind that many of these students have never owned a computer, let alone possess the necessary soft skills to transition to online learning mid-semester. So we switch from the wonderful world of classroom discussions and weekly assignments, to a panicked scramble online, where nobody knows what they’re doing, and the only teacher-contact is through email. How do I log in? What’s a PDF? Where can I see my assignments? When is this due? The computer lab is only open during my work hours? How do I submit an essay electronically? Why does it say I have an F? How come we can’t print anything? These are only a few of the constant questions I would hear among the students once the coronavirus interrupted our in-person classes.
Transitioning seventy students to a computer lab with nine computers and no printer, was quite trying. On top of that it was only open six hours a day, Monday through Friday. Some students were enrolled in six or seven classes, which made it mathematically impossible to get all their contact hours and study time. Not to mention that seventy students on nine computers was never going to be feasible. If we at least had a printer to print-off reading material to read elsewhere, that would have helped dramatically. But no such luck. One of the worst things about the printer issue has been the fact that there is another computer lab for inmates that does have a printer, but it is in an area that is locked due to Covid-19, and the IT department has refused to move it to the lab that is still open. So that printer just sits in an empty lab collecting dust.
Another seemingly insurmountable problem was that so many men in prison can’t operate a computer. Can’t open Windows or Microsoft Word, can’t save a document or find it afterwards, and definitely can’t navigate their way through ICON to find reading materials, watch videos, or submit assignments. This inability to function on a computer caused a lot of guys to quit, (about forty percent dropped out). To their credit, university faculty went above and beyond to create some equity by offering to come to the prison and pick up hand-written assignments. We used go-betweens for this process, to get assignments from inmates to the staff here who would pass them to the front office to be picked up by teachers. We also got a couple staff members in the prison to scan items to be emailed to UI faculty. It was an exercise in teamwork, patience, and adaptability. It was also horrible. The level and quality of the learning experience could not have been lower. It basically turned into middle school, where you’re provided with reading material and then asked to write about it.
Through the hard work and dedication of UI students and faculty, we did manage to finish the 2020 spring semester online. But only about sixty percent of the enrolled students completed their classes, and about half of them wouldn’t have were it not for the persistent encouragement and assistance from their fellow students. We got each other through the steep learning curve of transitioning to online learning. The guys who knew more about ICON and e-learning were leaned on heavily by both their classmates and the teachers. This meant that those guys spent many of their precious few hours in the lab helping others instead of doing their own coursework.
Then, with the semester wrapped, doing time once again came to a standstill. No more community, no more lofty discussions. No more feeling like we were a part of something good. Then they banned all team sports in the prison. No school, and no recreational options. Back to trudging through the days and weeks. You could either lift weights or run laps in the main yard. And since I don’t care for either of those, my options were reading and watching TV. The sports ban was finally lifted two months later, and so we are once again allowed to play team sports (for now), which has helped with the boredom. University of Iowa classes have not resumed, and volunteers and guests are still not allowed in the prison.
As I look back on the effects of covid-19 in prison, I can see it from multiple angles. I can complain about it and I can say it created a pitiful version of “higher education.” But I can also see it as an opportunity to overcome obstacles and adapt to multiple layers of adversity. I can look back at the semester as a fantastic learning experience, when it comes to problem solving and working with people who I normally wouldn’t have. The lesson I’m choosing to take from all this, is that problem solving and adaptability are necessary life skills. There will always be an abundance of problems that come up, some worse than others. But we have no choice but to tackle them head on, and that will always be easier with the help of others. Working together is the key. Working with one another helps us tackle the constant barrage of issues we continue to come up against.
Covid-19 has created some serious problems, but I’m choosing to view those as opportunities to grow and learn. I’m using those lessons to inform better personal practices as I move forward in my pursuit of higher education. I think we can also take what we learned about our student body here and change some of the policies and standards that are specific to our program. And most importantly, I’ll use these lessons to function more efficiently when I rejoin society. The coronavirus has been terrible in many different ways. But as with all adversity, it can also be the catalyst for some wonderful changes and improvements. It’s up to us as individuals how we choose to view it.