How the pandemic has had an impact on inmate education programs in jail

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The pandemic has changed how many students learn, including inmates who are learning at the Monroe County Jail. 

At the start of the pandemic, Special Operations Captain James McGowan with the Jail Bureau Monroe County Sheriffs Office, says everything immediately shut down, including some of the education programs at the jail. 

McGowan said they were able to get the rehab staff back in the jail quickly to keep the “core stuff” going.

“That enabled us to keep the city school district stuff going through initially taking a piece of paper, a homework assignment from the school teacher who would drop it off at the jail, and walking it up to where the inmate was living, giving it to him, then going back and collecting it the next day,” McGowan said. 

Eventually, learning shifted to zoom and inmates were able to take classes a few times a week through video. 

Miguel Corchado, a 19-year-old inmate, say he’s grateful he’s still been able to learn, but says the pandemic has made things a little trickier. 

“We’ve been trying. It’s a little hard. Some of the teachers haven’t shown up to class,” he said.

Inmates haven’t been able to always easily connect with their teachers, so many have to wait a few days to have their questions answered. Corchado hopes educators are able to go back to teaching in-person soon.

“I would like to see more of the teachers,” Corchado said. “Some of us tend to think if the teachers were there, it would help us a little more because sometimes we get stuck and frustrated with the work, and sometimes people just like feel like they have to give up because they can’t do it.”

McGowan said the situation can sometimes be tough for inmates.

“It’s easier to have someone standing over you and helping you with a problem. If you’ve got a math problem and you’re stuck on it and someone is saying, ‘you got to do this instead of that,’ it’s frustrating,” McGowan said. “You gotta wait, you gotta remember the problem you had. They correct it, they send it back. You have a question, you have to wait for the zoom conference to become avaliable, or to interact through the tablet. There’s definitely challenges there.”

Corchado said inmates often work as a team to help keep each other motivated. 

“Sometimes people get irritated, and it’s like, ‘hey if you’re giving up, I’m not giving up, I’m just going to keep going,’” he said.

The pandemic has made more than just learning tougher for inmates.

“It’s fair to say that you’re challenged enough when you’re already incarcerated and you’re trying to work through educational situations, as well as your legal situation, to have everything going on around you, so compound that with the fact that they also can’t go and do their court appearance in person. They’re doing that through a zoom, their attorney is not even sitting there next to them, their attorney is zooming in,” McGowan said. 

However, there’s been a lot of people who have stepped in to help inmates learn during this time. 

“There’s a few deps (deputies) that tend to help us a lot,” said Corchado. “They help us when they can, so I am just appreciative that they do.”

McGowan also said the Rochester City School District donated tablets for some inmates to learn. 

“They brought their own set of tablets in so the inmates could actually work, do the homework, communicate, and do everything they needed to with the teachers on those tablets and that actually worked out very well,” McGowan said. “So they kind of overcame some of those challenges.”

McGowan said providing programs during the pandemic takes a group effort. 

 “If anybody in here raises their hand and says, ‘I would like help,’ it doesn’t matter if it’s with school, if it’s with addiction, if it’s with an anger management issue, whatever you have, we will get all the training you need to help you succeed with that,” McGowan said. 

The process has begun to get teachers from the Rochester City School District back into the jail for in-person learning, but McGowan says it takes some planning. Inmates will have to stay in small groups to keep COVID from spreading. 

Corchado says he is excited for when teachers get to come back to teach in-person. 

“It will be more hands-on, better than zoom,” he said. “It’s a little more difficult holding the paper up to the camera and to be like, ‘Hey I need help with this and that.’ It would be better if they could help us inside the classrooms when we need it, when we have to ask questions.” 

Everyone agreeing, it’s important educational programs for inmates continue. 

“The educational piece of being in jail, in addition to anything to manage what brought you here or what challenges you’re facing, is critical at all times,” McGowan said. “Not only to getting you back and reentering society, but helping a person as a whole.”

To view a list of the programs offered in the Monroe County Jail, you can click here. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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