COVID-19 Halts Valuable Re-Entry Programs At Santa Clara Jails Impacting Population’s Education Goals

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By Angela Khov

Re-entry and rehabilitative programs assist incarcerated people in successfully transitioning into society after a period of incarceration to mitigate recidivism. 

These programs help individuals regain a sense of hope for a better future. They are especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many are already struggling with anxiety and fear of contracting the virus, enduring solitary confinement and even death. 

Five Keys is one such program offered in the Santa Clara County (SCC) jail system. It is a charter school that helps students continue their education and earn a GED. The program is built on restorative justice principles and aims to offer students five “keys” to aid their success: education, employment, recovery, family, and community. 

Since May, officials have confirmed over 224 COVID-19 cases in custody and administered over 12,000 tests. In mid-August, there was a major outbreak of 90 cases in custody. As a result, many programs in SCC’s jails, including Five Keys, were halted to promote social distancing and decrease in-person contact. It has had several consequences on the population’s health, emotional well-being and progress.

The Vanguard spoke with Michelle Prodanovic, Principal, Five Keys – Santa Clara County, to gain insight into the impact COVID-19 has had on their students. 

“Several months ago we were given the opportunity to re-enter [Santa Clara Main Jail and Elmwood Correctional Center] and serve students in a contactless way which at least provided inmates with an opportunity to continue their education. That was a huge plus, but there was a several-month gap where students were not being served,” Prodanovic explains.

Five Keys helped students continue their education throughout the pandemic by mailing them physical copies of educational material. Students would complete these worksheets, assignments, etc. and send them back to teachers. It allowed students to complete their work at their own pace. However, due to delays in the mail and distribution process, their productivity slowed down. Further, because of the population size and the challenges of perfecting a new system, many students may not have received their materials in a timely manner. 

Other jails in California have been following a similar correspondence method, or have suspended their programs completely. Prodanovic says that it has been disappointing and challenging for facilities to make these decisions since they have been so helpful for the population. 

Despite these deterrents, several students have remained persistent and dedicated to their education. “Because of COVID, it’s difficult to do what we would normally do in terms of motivating and communicating effectively. It’s been challenging,” Prodanovic says. “There are very motivated students at both facilities, even without in-person contact with a teacher, who have been turning in work,” she adds.

However, a lack of in-person contact has affected their students’ mental health, which has negatively impacted their academic involvement. She says, “Without direct contact, it was a struggle to engage with students effectively. The isolation they began to experience had taken a toll.” 

In comparison to the struggles of the general population, she says, “[Cancellation of in-person programs] is another disappointment on top of everything they are going through. I think it affects incarcerated students far more than the general population. The general population is having a really hard time in lockdown. Now you can imagine this is amplified by 100 times within a jail” 

Five Keys worked with the SCC Sheriff’s Office to integrate one teacher back into the Main Jail for a limited period of time. When asked how students reacted to the teacher’s return, she responded, “Students were extremely happy to see her. Extremely happy to re-engage, and they definitely were aware that it was not like the teachers walked away and abandoned them. They knew that we were not allowed in the facilities. They have been very eager for us to come back. Not having an educational program impacted them in many negative ways.”

It is clear that re-entry programs, like Five Keys, have a significant positive influence on the morale and mental health of incarcerated people. COVID-19 has not only had physical consequences on the jail population but also a deep psychological impact. 

As Five Keys and other reentry programs start to slowly be reinstated, there will be a clear increase in engagement and positivity. 

Prodanovic has also been working with the Sheriff’s Office to incorporate virtual learning into the jails, however, it is unclear when this will begin. The Sheriff’s Office has been communicative with her in terms of planning for virtual contact, but there are concerns regarding security. She says that virtual classes would be easier and more effective to provide than in-person classes during the pandemic. She is also very hopeful for this to happen since San Quentin has started a pilot program to offer virtual visits, which may trickle down to other jails. She says, “These virtual visits may lead to virtual instruction programs, so they can stay safe while also succeeding with their education. Going virtual would allow students to receive consistent education and contact with instructors.” 

Educational programs are essential to the rehabilitation and reintegration of incarcerated people. The Sheriff’s Office should recognize these benefits, and take immediate action to establish a strong virtual learning platform through which programs like Five Keys can continue to provide their services.

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About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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16 thoughts on “COVID-19 Halts Valuable Re-Entry Programs At Santa Clara Jails Impacting Population’s Education Goals”

  1. Ron Oertel

    [Cancellation of in-person programs] is another disappointment on top of everything they are going through. I think it affects incarcerated students far more than the general population. The general population is having a really hard time in lockdown. Now you can imagine this is amplified by 100 times within a jail”.

    Not sure if I have a comment, regarding this.  😉

    But yeah, it’s probably pretty disappointing to be in jail. (Well, there’s a comment.)

      1. Ron Oertel

        I’m thinking that most people reading this might think that the Vanguard would have been better-off without this article.

        Portions of it seem like something I’d expect from The Onion (from what I understand of that).

        That reminds me – whatever happened to your “Sacramento” reporter?

        1. Aparna Komarla Post author

          I lead the Vanguard’s coverage on COVID-19 in CDCR and County Jails. This article was authored by one of the interns on my team. You are welcome to read our investigative articles in the COVID-19 in CA Jails & Prisons series.

          Eight months of education and preparation for a GED can go a long way, and several incarcerated people are missing out on that. The impact of education on the reduction in recidivism rates is a well-researched subject. Your comments are empty and don’t help either of us. If you have any constructive feedback to offer, we are here to listen.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I think that for (most) people, their immediate reaction regarding hardships and challenges in jails (e.g., beyond outright abuse, or attacks from other inmates) is not necessarily one of empathy.

          The program itself sounds fine. I made a comment earlier today, in regard to increasing opportunities for those in long-term confinement (and noted that they might be able to offset some of the cost of their own incarceration, in the process).

          I’m not sure it’s that useful to interview the teachers, rather than the inmates (regarding how “happy they were to see her)”.

          1. David Greenwald

            Your initial comment was way way out of bounds. This comment is simply short-sighted – reentry programs are part of the key to reducing recidivism. Simply arresting and releasing people doesn’t work. Perhaps you should give this stuff a lot more thought and study before commenting, particularly when you insult hard working young reporters.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Perhaps you should give this stuff a lot more thought and study before commenting, particularly when you insult hard working young reporters.

          Typical over-reaction, from you.

          Do you feel a need to protect the ego of your “young reporters”?

          There’s a difference between making a comment regarding a passage (that would likely stand-out for most readers), vs. “insulting hard-working young reporters”.

          I realize that you operate in a world where you have attorneys-in-training, who will likely take up a lot of these causes. But, this is not necessarily a “normal/average” population of readers of media. And again, I don’t think “normal” readers would have a great deal of empathy regarding the passage I cited.

          Regardless, I guarantee you that they’ll be facing a lot more challenges than my comments.

          1. David Greenwald

            You compared their work to the Onion. Aparna is pissed. I don’t blame her. I suggest you be more sensitive or find another place to post your comments.

        4. Ron Oertel

          I see that the comments have suddenly “reappeared”.

          So, Aparna (whom I’ve never heard of, before today) is angry at my response to your comment, on behalf of one of her interns.  Again, the comment was directed at a portion of the article, not the intern (whom I’ve also never heard of).

          Again, I think maybe all of you are so wrapped up in criminal justice that you can no longer understand how this reads, to some outside of that circle. But truthfully, the comment was not to be taken so seriously.

          Well, at least the “guards aren’t trying to kill the prisoners” at this facility, as they reportedly are in the other article.  So, I’d call that an improvement. 😉

           

          1. David Greenwald

            You’re being obtuse – obviously if you compare part of the article to the onion, you are by implication suggesting that the person who wrote is … That directly violates the comment agreement.

        5. Ron Oertel

          You’re being obtuse – obviously if you compare part of the article to the onion, you are by implication suggesting that the person who wrote is …

          Obtuse?

          That directly violates the comment agreement.

          You know what to do about that. Seems like you did so for a period of time, only to repost it for the purpose of attempting to “shame” me in a rather bizarre fashion.

          Lemon meringue, by the way.  (Favorite pie.)

  2. Alan Miller

    particularly when you insult hard working young reporters.

    Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!   That’s really out of bounds.  RO did not insult the author’s work, he was making a comment about the content.

    When you started the student articles, my first thought was ‘now it’s going to be impossible to comment’.  I figured that you were going to do you usual ‘victim’ thing, and be over-protective of the students and if anyone criticized their point of view, you’d say say they were being personally insulted.  To your credit, you haven’t done that, until now.  But this is even worse, it’s ‘on behalf of’-ism.  But even worse, its ‘on behalf of on behalf of’-ism.  You are putting down a commenter for supposedly putting down a student on behalf of your employee on behalf of their intern.  Seriously?

    I worked with college students for the last two decades on campus.  I didn’t do it perfectly, but the one thing I always strived for myself was to treat them as adults, and respect them as adults, and that meant not protecting them as children.  If a reporter writes on a controversial topic, they are going to be criticized.  Do you believe that your protecting them, if that’s what you are even doing, is going to help them in the real world?  Are they even upset?  We haven’t even heard from the author.  Only from their protective supervisor’s supervisor.  Truth is, the comment RO made was pretty mild, and they are going to hear far worse.  But thank God there will always be DG there to protect them by putting down someone else.  What is your problem?

    You compared their work to the Onion.

    The Onion is very well written.  So there is no insult there.  I think it’s a poor comment, but not an insult to the author.  The reference to the Onion, I believe, was in reference to the absurdity of the position in the eyes of RO and probably a heck of lot of people – as in – most people when thinking about Covid-19, aren’t thinking about the loss of education to prisoners – they are thinking about loss of education to 1000’s of times more students who didn’t break the law.  I’m not against the program per say – that’s not my point.  My point is the Onion is well written, so your comment is off base.

    Aparna is pissed.

    Being pissed is valid.  Advertising that someone is pissed is questionable.

    I don’t blame her.

    There is no blame.  One can debate thoughts, but feelings are not debatable.

    I suggest you be more sensitive or find another place to post your comments.

    Is that a threat?

    1. Ron Oertel

      Thanks, Alan.  Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      And truthfully, it is certainly NOT one of the most biased articles I’ve seen on here, regardless. Wish I hadn’t even commented on it.

    2. Keith Olsen

      most people when thinking about Covid-19, aren’t thinking about the loss of education to prisoners – they are thinking about loss of education to 1000’s of times more students who didn’t break the law. 

      Exactly, COVID is here and we’re all losing out on things we used to be able to use or benefit from.

    3. Vincent Welles

      I think RO did insult the author’s work. It’s very well written and it brings up valid concerns regarding education in the prison system. There’s no such thing as being over-protective towards students if people like you give them great practice at dealing with what obtuse individuals have to say about their work. There is no difference between making an insensitive comment and insulting the reporter’s work. Respectfully, leave this educational forum and go back to the Reddit cesspool you and RO came from.

  3. Alan Miller

    Lemon meringue, by the way.  (Favorite pie.)

    Key Lime.  But I think I’ve only maybe had it once in my life.

    And, “by the way”, why are you bringing up favorite pie?

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