By Jireh Deng & Paris Barraza
For students across the world, from K-12 to students enrolled in higher education, the coronavirus pandemic has affected the way students are receiving their education, including the incarcerated community.
It is what Long Beach State student and volunteer for the Prison Education Program, Dale Lendrum, saw for himself as he began teaching in the summer.
The Prison Education Program was founded by Renford Reese, a professor of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. PEP is a volunteer-based program that provides educational programs to the incarcerated population, currently serving “17 California correctional facilities and four international correctional facilities.”
Lendrum, who is receiving his doctorate in educational leadership, first learned about PEP in 2017. But with his responsibilities to school and his father, Ledrum was unable to volunteer until he found more time in his schedule.
His goal was always to return to the prison system to teach, but he was drawn to PEP further after seeing one of the courses the program taught on forgiveness and healing.
“We’ve experienced a lot of traumas, even before [incarceration] most of us have experienced severe traumas,” Lendrum said. “Then we experienced more traumas while we’re incarcerated, and then we’re thrown out into the big bad world. And that can be traumatic.”
Now, Lendrum has come full circle, teaching as a volunteer for PEP at the same institution he once served time in, the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.
PEP has traditionally held in person classes for incarcerated students, but the pandemic has shifted operations with social distancing restrictions. Some prisons have different regulations on the types of gatherings for inmates which has affected methods of instruction.
The California Rehabilitation Center has been hit hard by infections and now Lendrum is mailing his student assignments, which can often take weeks in the turn-around time to arrive and for him to receive a response.
“We don’t know who’s dropped out,” Lendrum said of his students. “We don’t know who’s contacted COVID themselves. We’ve extended due dates for our in custody students, because it’s not their fault.”
Other volunteers have also been impacted by the COVID restrictions.
JeAnna Redwood is a community college student at Mt. San Antonio College. She first heard of PEP while she was incarcerated and running the literacy lab in the California Institute for Women. Through PEP, she currently teaches an eight-week autobiography writing workshop.
The lockdowns in prison have been severe to quell the rising infections amongst inmates. This has increased the mental and physical wellness of individuals who are unable to move from within their cells, Redwood said.
Despite these changes, Redwood continues to prepare her students’ stories for future print publication, as she believes her classes are an important part of empowering her students to reclaim their narratives.
“I really think that having this platform for her to tell her story, to tell her experience is like giving her a parole date,” Redwood said about one of her students. “So it’s very freeing. It’s very liberating, and she’s very excited about it.”
In another way, the pandemic has allowed the PEP program to flourish. The transition to online instruction has increased the accessibility of coursework to juvenile halls and internationally.
“When you’re on Zoom, you could do that from anywhere,” Redwood said about the expansion of PEP. “There were people that wanted to do it, but [before] they didn’t have a way to get here physically.”
Sara Rodriguez, who is formerly incarcerated, first joined PEP in 2017 while at Cal Poly Pomona.
After being told about the work Reese was doing, Rodriguez looked it up but saw that PEP volunteers would go inside correctional facilities, something she believed she would not be approved of due to her own felony conviction.
So she applied to be a volunteer for the Reintegration Academy, a program also founded by Reese which invites parolees to college campuses for an eight-week immersive experience that connects participants to local employers and enrolls them in community colleges.
But when Reese found out that Rodriguez was formerly incarcerated and a current student, he invited her to check out their first meeting of Project Rebound. From there, Rodriguez helped Reese with whatever she could, and received approval to enter a correctional facility.
It’s programs like these, Rodriguez said, that help connect the formerly incarcerated or system-impacted community and expand to other college campuses.
“It just makes us stronger as a whole, as far as what we can do,” Rodriguez said. “We can really start organizing better and organizing information as far as what is available to us and what the possibilities are.”
Now, Rodriguez is pursuing her master’s in social work at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She also teaches introduction to college classes with the help of Irene Sotelo, one of the founders of Rising Scholars at CSULB. Sotelo, a third-year graduate student, is also part of Long Beach’s chapter of Project Rebound.
For over a year and a half, the duo have utilized Reese’s curriculum and hosted one-hour classes with topics ranging from how to pick a major with a felony to financial aid resources. The coronavirus pandemic halted their classes, but the two have since turned to Zoom sessions.
“For me, it’s like as long as we get one person that’s great and even if we don’t, then we’ll Pow Wow between the other campuses on what else we can do,” Rodriguez said.
As Lendrum, Redwood and Rodriguez continue serving the incarcerated community, the value of education is something that Rodriguez understands well.
“From those that are incarcerated, there’s not a lot for them to do inside there and so I feel like a lot of them are hungry for knowledge, hungry for things that can better themselves,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like a win-win situation for both the volunteers as well as those that are incarcerated, not only for the volunteers gaining that experience, but it’s a sense of giving back.”