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Q&AZ: Why Do Arizona Prisons Require In-Person Attendance For GED Classes During COVID-19 Pandemic?

Q&AZ is supported in part by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Most K-12 schools, colleges and universities in Arizona have gone digital in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an emphasis on social distancing. But in prisons across the state, students are still being forced to go to class in-person every day. A Q&AZ listener asked why hasn't the prison education system gone to correspondence work.

When asked why inmates in state prisons are required to attend General Educational Development classes and other courses, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections said “programming is considered an essential service as part of reentry planning, while also providing institutional safety and security.”

However, teachers at the state prisons say the continued in-person classes are endangering lives, and the Department of Corrections has the ability to continue the inmates’ education without forcing them to physically attend the programming.

“Our classrooms are crowded,” one teacher said. “There are 18 students and six or seven tutors plus a teacher in about 900 square feet. You obviously can’t be 6 feet apart from each other.”

The teacher said most instructors lead morning and afternoon classes every day. They estimated there are at least 100 teachers working with close to 1,000 students each day in Arizona state prisons.

Teachers say their students have expressed their concern about contracting COVID-19 from staff members.

“They are nervous about employees bringing the virus into their world,” a teacher said.

Inmates are not allowed to wear masks in Arizona state prisons and the classrooms are no exception. Teachers, like correctional officers, are provided masks and are allowed to wear them in the prisons.

The teachers say there has been very little testing of employees or inmates in the facilities they work in.

“It is definitely a concern to all the educators in the prisons that the classes are still meeting,” a teacher said, referring to their classroom as a potential “incubator” for the virus.

Threats And Discipline

A woman whose sister is incarcerated in the Perryville women’s prison says her sister was disciplined for refusing to attend GED classes.

“She stopped going and took the consequences for doing so, but at least it made her feel less vulnerable,” she said.

“To her, attending the classes is much less important than risking her life,” the woman said. “But because she refused to go, they have reduced her visitations and the amount of time she can talk on the phone.”

The woman said her sister has also been threatened with losing the ability to earn an earlier release date.

“ADC made her sign a paper acknowledging her refusal of the classes,” she said. “They said they may even move her to a different yard at the prison.”

A woman whose husband is incarcerated at the Florence prison said he has also been disciplined for refusing to go to GED classes during the pandemic.

“They are saying he’s going to suffer the consequences if he doesn’t comply, but he doesn’t want to risk his life anymore,” the woman said.

“They have all these classes that they make them take,” the woman said of ADC’s program requirements, “but honestly, for a man his age, with a learning disability, most of it doesn’t make any difference."

“He takes the classes because he wants to play ball and be a good inmate,” she said of her husband. “He doesn’t cause problems. He doesn’t get in fights. He does what he’s supposed to do. He just wants to do his time and come home.”

But she says making her husband take classes that would put him in close contact with other inmates during the pandemic is asking too much.

“The ADC officials threatened him saying he would lose a lot of his rights,” the woman said. “They said he would get a disciplinary ticket, he would lose phone privileges, and they would restrict his visitation.”

“They’re putting my husband at risk,” she said. “They’re going to end up killing him in there over a marijuana charge.”

A man whose fiance is incarcerated at the Perryville prison says the women there are concerned about being forced to take in-person classes now that an inmate has tested positive for COVID-19.

The man’s fiance expressed her concerns in recent email: “Today, a few women were brought back to our unit for GED testing along with the women who are here going to school every day, and they took no precautionary measures to ensure the safety of the inmate population, not even a temperature check.”

“People from different units are having to travel together to our yard and every inmate takes their 8th grade literacy test just feet away from the women from the other units,” the woman wrote. “We watch as the teachers go in and out of the classroom all day without a mask.”

The woman says she asked ADC administrators during a recent inmate town hall if they could skip in-person classes for the time being.

“The deputy warden’s answer was ‘No,’” she said. “A lot of the women here don't feel safe at all.”

An Easy Solution

An Arizona prison teacher who is concerned about the potential for spreading the virus said it would not be hard to transition from the current classroom instruction to correspondence courses for a few months.

The teacher said there is also an education channel broadcasting GED classes available to inmates with televisions that could be used in conjunction with correspondence instruction.

“It is very easy to send a textbook home with a student to work for a week or two or three while they wait for this situation to get under control,” the teacher said.

"Colleagues in other school systems have adapted admirably to online education and alternative lesson planning," the prison instructor said. "We could do the same."

“We appreciate the work of the correctional officers who facilitate the inmates’ movement to and from class,” the teacher said. “But we acknowledge it is another burden for an already overworked labor force that is also being hit with COVID-19 infections.”

As of May 11 there were 60 ADC staff who had self-reported COVID-19 infections.

“Halting the classes would reduce the need for correctional officers to facilitate inmate movements, and would allow them to focus on more important duties,” the teacher said.

One teacher remarked that their mission had changed as they transitioned from instructing students in public schools, to working with an incarcerated population.

“Instead of trying to keep my students out of prison,” the teacher said, “I’m now teaching them skills in prison so they won’t come back. It’s very fulfilling, just in a different way.”

“We are very grateful to the Department of Corrections for facilitating these classes, and for acknowledging the important work we are doing,” the teacher said. “But the question remains: ‘Are in-person education programs vital in these circumstances?’”

The teacher said the answer is “No.”

“Especially when we can continue their education through alternative lesson planning,” the teacher said. “We can make this process safer for everyone involved. It would lower the risk to our communities, and it would lower the risk of us bringing the virus into the prisons.”

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.