Many religious higher education institutions have found ways to remain connected with prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the challenges of having to shift to online classes.
Visitation at correctional facilities was suspended due to safety concerns. Religion News reports that included live class instruction, so the opportunity to receive an education seemed hopeless for some inmates.
There's been a "lockdown on top of the lockdown" for many imprisoned students, said Vickie Reddy, assistant director of North Park's School of Restorative Arts.
"Many of them have had long lockdowns, but not like this. So it really has taken a mental health toll beyond the trauma that's already there," Reddy explained.
But institutions started adopting new methods of teaching, distributing classwork, and interacting with the students.
North Park Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Chicago, introduced a program offering a master's degree in Christian ministry and restorative arts. Inmates at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill were eager to get back to the books.
Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, director of its School of Restorative Arts said some of the courses offered include theology, history, and pastoral care. A class of 38 students is set to graduate in 2022.
Reddy receives individual packets of material from instructors and drops them off at Stateville every week. Then she returns to collect the completed assignments, scans them, and returns the work to instructors.
And Reddy clarified that prisoners aren't given any special treatment. They are treated like any other college student.
"It's remarkable," she said. "And there's no concession...There's no, 'Okay, we'll go easy on you because you're in prison.' It's a full load and they have high expectations."
Just recently, students and instructors began meeting through Zoom. Nine students at a time from the same housing units, but they must remain distanced and masked while they meet. Reddy referred to the important milestone as a "game-changer."
And Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Missouri was persistent about keeping college-credit courses open for inmates at Chillicothe Correctional Center.
School President Thomas Curran saw to it that courses were redesigned during the pandemic so prisoners wouldn't miss out on an education. Through Zoom and on big-screen TVs, Curran teaches incarcerated students.
Eighteen students at a time meet in a large room at Chillicothe and watch him on a big screen while remaining 6 feet apart and masked.
Curran is hopeful that the "breakthrough" will keep the course going and bring about a hybrid approach to learning where inmates at Chillicothe and Rockhurst can take classes in person and through Zoom.
So far this year, inmates there - and a separate group of correctional officers - have completed 31 college credits toward earning an associate's degree.
Kimberly Herring, deputy warden of operations at Chillicothe, said the educational program has been an important part of building self-worth for many incarcerated students. Since the pandemic, the program was most beneficial for inmates struggling with being isolated.
"The Rockhurst program allowed them to feel a connection to some sense of reality and 'normal' and allowed them to continue working toward their goal of improving their lives," Herring said in a statement.
Additionally, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities President Shirley V. Hoogstra emphasized that educational programs can have a positive impact on prisoners, their families, and their communities. She also highlighted Jesus' words in Matthew 25: "I was in prison and you came to visit me."
"An education recognizes the God-given dignity of all individuals. It provides a fresh start. And it provides the confidence to face a new future and look candidly at the past," Hoogstra added.