After COVID-19 forced a second suspension of our programming at Danville Correctional Center in January 2022, we’re grateful that EJP classes were able to resume in March. However, we’re still trying to recover from the setbacks we encountered during the shut-down.
The suspension has led us to extend our courses into the summer, to make up for missed classes. In addition to the missed classroom time, access to student resources, such as the EJP community library, the computer lab, and other vital educational tools, were restricted.
“Students felt isolated and locked out of their academic pursuits,” says Writing and Math Partner (WAMP) co-coordinator Tess Saxton-Fox.
Another factor that has complicated EJP’s programming is the loss of space at the prison. During the pandemic, the prison administration cut the space allocated to our community library by half. This drastic change has limited students’ access to our collection, which they rely upon for personal research and class assignments.
In addition, there is a backlog in the volunteer clearance process. That means that initiatives like WAMP are still waiting for its members to get clearance from the Illinois Department of Corrections. WAMP works best when there are more tutors present, Tess says, so she hopes clearances will happen quickly.
Masks, which are still required at the prison, can also make it difficult to communicate and articulate feelings and thoughts, says Christopher Menard, an EJP instructor and director of the Psychology Department’s Mindfulness Services & Instructor Training at UIUC.
Kelli McQueen, a writing workshop participant and member of EJP’s community library, expresses concern for students’ mental wellbeing, noting the trauma that many incarcerated individuals have had to endure these past two years. Limited access to educational resources, support groups, and peer communities that they rely on has taken a toll both on their educational endeavors and personal health.
Through all this, EJP members have persisted. As more of our outside members receive clearance and more programs resume their schedules at the prison, many improvements to EJP’s 12 prison-based programs are in evidence. For instance, members of the community library program have rearranged the library space and computer lab so all books and research resources are accessible.They have made a reference list for all current library holdings, as well as a listing for the materials they wish to add to the space.
There are many concerns related to the future as the pandemic continues to evolve. Both Tess and Charlotte Bauer, a WAMP member, hope more members will gain clearance so WAMP and other EJP programs can support more incarcerated EJP student members. Kelli also hopes that we can hire a new Community Librarian this summer and start planning some new projects at the library.
The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the ways in which EJP and its members approach challenges and, while these challenges are not gone, EJP will continue to adapt. For more information and how you can support EJP, go to https://educationjustice.net/donate/ .