SCHOOL DAZE: How COVID Impacts Education — Prison Literacy Program Adapts During COVID Lockdowns

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(This is the second in a series of articles produced in partnership with journalists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle in collaboration with the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.)

By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER

Part II

Part I introduced the Lit Club program. Part II, below, covers the impact of the recent COVID outbreak at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) on the Lit Club, as well as background on the Asian Prisoner Support Committee’s ROOTS program.

In August 2020, the Oakland-based Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) kicked off its Lit Club program at three women’s prisons in California. In the Lit Club, nine partner pairs — each with one person in prison and one APSC volunteer — choose from a list of books to read together, and then discuss the book via email.

This relationship-based education is crucial in APSC’s vision of safety and health for communities affected by incarceration.

“Oftentimes we think about prison as that solution, to safety and health,” said Nguyen. “But what I’ve learned, at least through this pandemic, is that that’s not necessarily true. Prisons are detrimental to the health of folks who are incarcerated.”

Prisons, jails, and detention centers have been the sites of mass COVID outbreaks across the country. According to the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, 398,020 people incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and 2,344 people have died. There have also been 86,805 cases among staff, and 130 deaths.

An excerpt from “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui, which Lit Club reading partners Tien-Hsiang Mo and Shelley Kuang chose to read together. (Shelley Kuang)

The Chicago Law Review found that people were dying of COVID-19 in prison at three times the rate seen in the country as a whole, after adjusting for age and sex.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California prisons are currently 102.9 percent over capacity, despite releases earlier in the pandemic.

“We’ve seen people be released arbitrarily because of COVID — which for me is a sign that we don’t need to be locking people up,” said Nguyen. “The solution is rooted in being able to sustain people’s reentry.”

According to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Madera County had 500 new COVID cases within a two-week period spanning the end of 2020 to the first week of 2021 — making it the site of the largest outbreak in the state.

Several members of the APSC Lit Club reside at CCWF, which is the largest women’s prison in the world, currently incarcerating 2,039 people.

APSC’s program coordinator Hien Nguyen says the Lit Club allows insight and real-time updates as to what is happening inside the prisons. More than half the Lit Club’s participants living at CCWF have tested positive for COVID.

“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been getting a lot of panic mails,” she said.

Lit Club members on the outside have been responding to these messages, hoping to provide comfort to their partners.

“We’re trying to build trust amongst each other, so that we can support each other through these challenges,” said Nguyen.

“This Bridge Called My Back,” one of the books on the Lit Club’s reading list. (Annakai Geshlider)

“There is a massive outbreak in CCWF and I am trying to deal with all the uncertainties, but I am looking forward to our next book,” wrote Lit Club member Tien-Hsiang Mo, who says that due to the outbreak, prison authorities have relocated her several times, forcing her and her belongings into a state of limbo. The prison is not allowing residents under quarantine to receive outside materials, making delivery of books difficult.

“Reading, writing, simply thinking, keeps me sane,” Mo added. “I need food to my brain just as I need oxygen in my body. For now, I am self-reflecting and learning how to be still (you’d think it would be easy since I am locked in a cell 24 hours/day, but I assure you, it is not!) while I await the next book in the mail.”

While Mo is able to send more frequent emails through a personal tablet, people who do not have tablet access must wait their turn to use a communal kiosk. (Since the Lit Club began, members have often wanted to write more than their 20-minute kiosk time slot allowed, and would send emails in multiple parts.) Due to the pandemic’s recent quarantines, many no longer have access to the communal kiosks.

“We may not hear from our partners for the next couple of weeks, which is a really scary thought,” said Nguyen.

The Lit Club is split into three modules, each centered on a theme. Module 1, which has wrapped up, featured books involving personal reflection and memoir. Module 2 includes books that bring personal narratives into a larger collective consciousness. Partners will choose from “Captive Genders,” an anthology exploring queer and trans identities and the prison industrial complex; “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color”; and “Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems by June Jordan.”

Module 3 will address solidarity, healing, and dreaming. Partners can choose from “Remember We Have Choir Practice,” a poetry collection by poet and educator Terisa Siagatonu; “Sister, Outsider” by Audre Lorde; and “Emergent Strategy” by Adrienne Marie Brown.

As part of Module 3, Lit Club members will create a “Vision Board” project, where they will respond to the question, “What is your ideal world?” The final project aims to bring a sense of interconnectedness among the Lit Club participants because they cannot gather in person.

In light of the quarantine, she writes hopefully about continuing the penpal-ship. Quoting her reading partner, Mo wrote:

“Like Shelley told me once upon a time, ‘healing is a non-linear process,’ so I shall continue my scribbles and hope in the meantime, the world doesn’t come crashing down!”

Before the pandemic closed prisons to visitors, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee conducted programs in person. For the past five years, APSC taught ethnic studies at San Quentin prison in Northern California. The weekly program was called ROOTS — short for “Restoring Our Original True Selves.”

ROOTS is a rehabilitation credit program. When a participant completes 52 hours, they receive a credit that can count toward sentence reduction. Nguyen said that ROOTS participants are often so committed to the program that they request to learn more, exceeding their required 52 hours — despite the fact that they will not receive any more credit after that time maximum.

As part of the model of healing-based education, APSC believes in the power of connecting history to one’s personal story and emotional well-being.

“The real learning is in the heart,” said Nate Tan, APSC’s co-director. “What these guys feel, what they see, what they remember. What feels like healing.”

By building relationships with people in prison, the ROOTS model focused on “learning community solutions from the perspective of folks inside,” said Nguyen. Several of APSC’s staff and members are formerly incarcerated, and would return to San Quentin to facilitate classes through ROOTS.

At the end of each ROOTS cycle, APSC hosted a graduation inside San Quentin. Nguyen said that while ROOTS is limited materially, the community that formed throughout “is so resilient and optimistic that folks create their own learning experience.”

During one graduation ceremony, ROOTS members woke at 3 a.m. to bake cake because the prison does not allow visitors to bring food from outside. They made the graduation day festive, folding origami and decorating the classroom.

“When you give people agency, they want to do what’s good for them,” said Nguyen. “I wish people could see the effort that [ROOTS members] put into making this a celebration for themselves.”

“It was incredible to see what happens when you equip people in such an oppressive, unjust system with knowledge of liberation, the knowledge of freedom stories,” Tan said. “Amazing things happen.”

To date, APSC has seen over 100 ROOTS members come home from prison.

“If we want safety and health for everyone, we need to come up with solutions to address those that are most marginalized,” said Nguyen. “And the most marginalized are folks who unfortunately have committed mistakes, but come out of it completely transformed people — really the most phenomenal people, with the solutions to this issue.”

To keep up with APSC or donate to support their work, visit asianprisonersupport.org.

 

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