The Oklahoma Department of Correction’s administration facility in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The confinement of inmates to their cells in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 has also meant the pause of classes for thousands of students in Oklahoma prisons who were working on degrees and vocational certificates. 

Unlike traditional public schools across the state that adopted distance learning programs amid school building closures, students in prison did not have that option. 

“The second chance Pell program regulations do not allow for correspondent classes,” said Jeff Horvath, referring to the federal grant program for students in prison. 

Horvath, who is the corrections education coordinator at Tulsa Community College, which offers classes inside Dick Conner Correctional Facility in northeast Oklahoma, said more than 100 students were taking classes before the lockdown. 

In the early days of the lockdown some students were able to complete assignments inside their cell and give them to prison staff to be scanned and sent to professors.  

“It only worked because of our strong partnership with (the Oklahoma Department of Corrections) and their education team,” Horvath said. 

More than 2,000 inmates taking classes through Oklahoma CareerTech have also had to pause their vocational training programs in 16 prisons. 

Depending on how long classes remain on hold some students may be released before getting a chance to earn a certificate in welding, auto repair, computer programing or one of the other vocational programs offered. 

“We don’t want students to go through a program and not be discharged for two years and forget what they learned,” said Paula Bowles, a spokesperson for CareerTech. “Because the timing is really important that they get as close to discharge as possible when they enroll you do have students who may be released soon.”

As many as 123 CareerTech students are scheduled to be released in the next 90 days. 

Bowles said transition coordinators might be able to help released students complete certificate programs in addition to helping with job placement and housing. 

“The students are still coming out and the needs don’t change because of this pandemic,” said Christi Williams, a student services coordinator for CareerTech’s prison education program. 

Taking classes reduces a person’s likelihood of re-incarceration by 43 percent, according to a report by the RAND Corporation.

Less than 5 percent of students of Tulsa Community College’s program return to prison, Horvath said. 

A graduation ceremony at Dick Conner Correctional Facility in 2019. Courtesy Department of Corrections

Even when prisons allow education programs to reopen another challenge will be the coming impact of state budget cuts in response to the coronavirus-caused economic decline. 

Bowles said state budget cuts will have an impact on CareerTech programs but details are not yet known. 

Tulsa Community College’s offender learning program is largely funded through the Second Chance Pell experiment, which offers federal Pell grants to more than 12,000 inmates across the country. 

“The good thing is that the way the financial aid works is when you get approved for the Pell it is for fall, spring and summer,” Horvath said. “If someone were to get out early they are already approved for summer classes.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who last year attended the graduation ceremony at Dick Conner prison, recently announced an expansion of the program that will double the number of schools working in prisons across the country. 

“I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several Second Chance Pell institutions and have seen firsthand the transformative impact this experiment has on the lives of individuals who are incarcerated,” DeVos said in a statement. 

Western Oklahoma State College was one of the 67 additional schools invited to participate.  

The college had already been serving around 20 students at North Fork Correctional Facility but expects enrollment to double under the Pell grant program, said Terri Pearson, vice president for student support services.

For the students currently in the middle of classes, Pearson said hopes they can catchup on the missed work after the lockdown is lifted. 

“We’ve recorded all our lectures so those students at North Fork will be able to complete the program when they are allowed to (leave their cells),” Pearson said. “I think those students have been impacted by the quarantine more so than our traditional students at the college.”