FEPPS continues amidst COVID-19
By Sarah Czarnecki
Conducting learning within prisons is a challenge; maneuvering around systems that are built to confine, not educate is no small task. Students come into the classroom with disparate educational backgrounds, often carrying with them a past of negative academic experience. Further adding to the difficulty, prison leadership requires screenings and strict permissions which place limitations on instructors and education bodies to conduct courses at their full capacity. In short, the logistics of education within the prison systems are a pedagogical obstacle course.
Since 2012, the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS)–based out of the Washington Correction Center for Women–has been working to tackle this educational challenge head-on. The organization provides “a rigorous college program to incarcerated women, transgender and gender nonconforming people in Washington” (from their website) and aids released students in furthering their educational pursuits. The organization offers college prep courses, study hall opportunities, an Associate of Arts degree program and, more recently, an approved Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies curriculum. 2020 was to be a big year for the institution, with the first cohort of BA students having begun their classes in January. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, things have not exactly gone to plan.
A Semester Interrupted
Students at UPS are likely familiar with FEPPS, with many having volunteered for or interned with the program. Our very own Professor Tanya Erzen is a co-founder. While many students can attend Zoom classes and are able to isolate in their respective homes, FEPPS students are working hard to finish up their own semester lacking internet access and the option to isolate.
In early March, FEPPS stopped conducting in-person classes. This action was taken to mitigate student and professor exposure to the virus, as the institution recognized the vulnerability of prison populations during this pandemic. The Washington State Department of Corrections was not far behind, suspending all volunteer access to the WCCW and other Washington State prisons on March 20th, having tightly restricted access in the preceding weeks.
With in-person classes and study halls no longer being held, FEPPS’ response to the suspension has been a system of “paper-based distance learning”. A FEPPS employee will go to the prison and drop off packets of work put together by professors that students are to complete on their own, returning them in two weeks’ time.
In an attempt to keep channels of support open, FEPPS staff has maintained access to their office, which lies outside the prison grounds. This enables them to use the internal communication system within the WCCW to connect with students.
Although they have been working hard to bring a sense of normalcy to the situation, Professor Erzen noted that the paper system is simply no replacement to in-person learning. “Morale is low”, she stated, “People really miss outside volunteers, not just from our program but from many programs, who are such a link to the outside world. It’s hard for people to stay motivated and continue to study when they don’t have the structure of a classroom”
The dizzying lack of classroom structure coupled with the obligation to complete work is by now an all-too-familiar sensation for many. Academic responsibility often feels unimportant at a time like this, especially with the daily flurry of alarming headlines running across our screens. We feel confused and afraid yet must still address our looming academic tasks.
“We on the outside probably experience a range of emotions of feeling powerless and feeling sometimes isolated and sometimes anxious”, mentioned Professor Erzen, “In a prison, you are going to be having the same kinds of issues but without the same level of support.”
Coping With Fear
Professor Erzen also evoked the “tremendous fear” with which incarcerated individuals are grappling, being now completely isolated from the outside and knowing that there is no way to socially distance in overcrowded facilities like the WCCW.
The term “isolation” takes on an entirely new meaning for incarcerated populations during this crisis. The role of programs such as FEPPS is “partially pedagogical, but it’s also about building connection to the outside world.”, says Professor Erzen. They expand the borders of prison walls, fostering a connection with life outside that would otherwise be entirely lost. Although being alone in crowded facilities is near impossible, the loss of these programs has left individuals without this link, isolating them in a much greater sense.
Feelings of fear and isolation are not confined to prisons in Washington state. Since the onset of the pandemic, what little information that has been coming out of the nation’s prisons has been a resounding echo of these sentiments, with a New York Times article quoting an individual who felt they and their fellow inmates had been “left for dead” by the slow response of prison governing bodies.
The Department of Corrections, along with other entities of incarceration such as ICE and DHS, have subsequently come under intense fire from communities and advocacy groups for their handling of the pandemic in light of the serious health threat the virus poses in crowded, often less-than-sanitary prisons.
According to Professor Erzen, the outbreak of COVID-19 has asked FEPPS to reflect upon their position as an educational organization. “What is our role as a college in prison program when we can’t deliver classes and confer degrees, what are we really to do?” she asked. Their duty, in her eyes, is two-fold:
They are responsible for the emotional support of students, making sure “we’re supporting them around their health and wellness and their mental wellbeing”. To this end, FEPPS has sent in letters with strategies for time management and how to approach an assignment as well as everyday advice such as journal-keeping, in which students are encouraged to reflect on their reactions to their situation as a whole, separated from schoolwork. They have also sent poems and other letters of support with the aim of aiding morale.
Their second duty is advocacy. She mentions working in an “incredible vacuum of information” right now as they try to adapt to the developing global situation. To meet this challenge, she feels that FEPPS must act as an advocate for its students and shed light on their stories that might otherwise go untold. “If we believe in the dignity of all people,” asked Professor Erzen, “what’s our obligation to the people inside prisons?”