MMC Prison Education Programs Persevere Despite COVID-19 Pandemic
“I am so proud of our students and awed by their dedication,” says Lisette Bamenga, Academic Coordinator for the TCP. A week after the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision suspended all visitations to combat the spread of COVID-19, Bamenga met Taconic’s deputy in the parking lot and received a box filled with papers, folders, and envelopes. When she returned home, she inspected its contents. “I was overwhelmed with emotions as I realized that students had turned in assignments for every class. All our students are doing well, and all are appreciative of our sticking by them—there are many notes from the students thanking all of us profusely for not giving up on them and continuing the semester.”
The logistics of teaching within the prison system are already difficult, and the pandemic has only further complicated instruction. Both Bamenga and Aileen Baumgartner, Director of the Bedford Hills College Program at the nearby maximum-security facility, say the faculty have been instrumental in keeping students’ routines as normal as possible. Luckily, program administrators and faculty were able to provide revised syllabi and work materials to their students before the facilities shut down, and they have worked out a system for continuously delivering materials back and forth from the students inside the facility to the faculty on the outside. “Now, each Friday, student work is handed to me at the gate and I drop off about 120 packets that include more paper and pens, corrected papers and exams, copies of articles professors want students to read, and new assignments,” says Baumgartner. “And always a letter from me.”
MMC’s prison education programs are among the few that have successfully maintained academic operations in spite of the widespread isolation and social distancing policies necessitated by the outbreak. Many other programs have simply had to shut down, with negative effects for those incarcerated, explains Drew Leder, Ph.D., MMC’s Ferraro Fellow for Prison Education and Public Philosophy. “It took a lot of work and foresight from many people on the inside and out, but MMC has found a way to keep things going, to keep students learning, and to keep work being transmitted between students and faculty.”
MMC was also fortunate to be one of 15 prison education providers to receive an emergency grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support incarcerated students during the COVID-19 pandemic. This generous grant allowed us to support our professors and staff who dedicated their time and energy to providing an education to students at our Bedford Hills and Taconic campuses under very difficult circumstances. From all of us at MMC, thank you.