How did New York’s prison educators cope with the pandemic

Photo from NYU Prison Education Program’s 2019 writing collection

Allyson Paty, an associate writing professor at New York University, used to drive for two hours from Greenwich village to Wallkill prison in Shawangunk, N.Y. After security check, a prison guard guided her inside to the wing of the facility. The professor would soon see her students: inmates wearing green jailed uniforms. Paty would spend three hours reading and discussing poems with the group, transforming the stark prison-space into a welcoming college classroom.

When the virus hit in March, Paty’s writing critique workshop in Wallkill was in the middle point. The pandemic barred all educators from seeing their students, but incarcerated students faced more impediments: prison computers don’t have internet access. The prison walls seemed thicker than ever.

But there are ways.

Paty, who also teaches writing at New York University, is one of the prison educators across New York State who, despite pandemic closure, helped those in state custody continue their studies during the pandemic.

They implemented a new strategy to continue prison education: Professors would email class assignments to program staffers who printed materials out and gave to prison workers who handed them off to the students behind bars.

The Wallkill parking lot soon became the exchange spot between program workers and prison staff. Course materials were sent inside, and students’ work were collected and scanned by the program’s associate director.

Paty was thrilled to find her inmate students, roughly 15, compiled about 30 pages of original writings with a student-designed cover sheet.

“It was so rich, so committed,” she said of their work. These writing materials might be worked into an annual creative writing publication to share with the NYU community.

Pace University criminal justice professor Kimberly Collica-Cox also had to rethink logistics when it came to the therapy dog program she helped implement at Westchester County Jail and Metropolitan Correctional Center.

The course — dubbed “Parenting, Prison, Pups,” which helps incarcerated mothers with their parenting skills while managing their emotions — partly relies on the help of Pace students.

As the Covid number goes down, Collica-Cox, along with four dog therapy teams, is now allowed to go to the Westchester jail and lecture in person.

“The humans, the dogs, everybody really adapted. Everybody follows the rules. The protocols,” Collica-Cox said.

This semester, Westchester jail also bought a smart TV to hold Zoom meetings between jailed students and Pace students barred from coming in person.

“Most facilities do not want technology. They don’t like it because they don’t have control over it,” Collica-Cox added. “I’ll say that the Westchester jail has been very innovative in this because if they didn’t provide the technology, we wouldn’t be able to provide this type of programming.”

Wallkill prison also chose to embrace technology from mid-summer, allowing pre-recorded lecture videos delivered by USB drive. Behind the bars, writing and learning are not deterred by the virus or the technological limitations.

Every year at the beginning of Paty’s writing course, she would read the poem Blessing the Boats by Lucille Clifton to stress how learning can carry people to new life, fearlessly:

“May the tide/ that is entering even now/ the lip of our understanding/ carry you out/ beyond the face of fear.”

It is the people who believe in the power of education that make learning outlived every face of fear.

My decision is to labor, to love, to be cold and disobedient, to laugh at everything, and…try to live on the tree. Student at NYU.