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Research Questions

  1. How does the COVID-19 infection rate among the U.S. general population compare with that among the prison population?
  2. What modifications to educational programs were made by the Departments of Corrections in response to COVID-19?
  3. What was the impact on education budgets, availability and continuation of programs, student access, and program completion rates?
  4. How did impacts vary by types of programs (e.g., career and technical education)?
  5. What are the long-term impacts of program and policy changes on the type of education programs being delivered and the likely effects on incarcerated students' educational progression and skills development?

In this report, the authors examine trends in the overall coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection rate for the U.S. state prison population and summarize the findings from the most recent and most comprehensive study undertaken to date of correctional systems' responses to COVID-19 published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The authors also present the results of their 2022 survey of state correctional education directors to understand what modifications were made to educational programs for incarcerated individuals, including leveraging of technology in response to COVID-19 and impacts on instructional delivery and quality, student access to programs, enrollment and certifications earned, and on budgets.

Key Findings

  • There were two major peaks in the percent of COVID-19–infected persons in the state prison population (in late 2020 and the winter of 2022).
  • Correctional authorities adopted a range of mitigation measures, including providing face masks to incarcerated individuals and staff in correctional facilities, implementing isolation or quarantine of symptomatic persons who were incarcerated, and enforcing sick or administrative leave for symptomatic staff.
  • A survey of state correctional education directors indicated that the impact of mitigation measures on education programs was dramatic: Most of the 29 state correctional education directors who responded to the survey reported that instruction in 2020 was either halted or suspended and/or that in-person instruction was suspended across program types (adult basic education, adult secondary education, vocational education, and college programs). In early 2022, instruction still remained halted in one or more prison facilities for all program types.
  • COVID-19 and responses to it negatively affected instructional quality. Ninety percent of state correctional education director survey respondents reported short- or long-term gaps in instruction and an inability to administer assessments (e.g., high school equivalency tests, industry-recognized certification exams, academic placement tests).
  • COVID-19 and responses to it helped accelerate the adoption of online and hybrid learning models and the use of technology for prison education programs.

Access to education and training programs in 2020 was negatively affected by COVID-19 outbreaks among incarcerated persons and staff in correctional facilities.

  • As a result, enrollment significantly decreased in adult basic education, adult secondary education, vocational education, and college programs in 2020. The number of credentials earned also decreased significantly in 2020.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Ascendium Education Group and conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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