COVID-19 and Higher Education in Prison Programs

COVID-19 and Higher Education in Prison Programs

Published 2021

The 2020 Annual Survey of Higher Education in Prison (Annual Survey) was launched in March 2020, with data collection ending in May 2020. The survey consisted of 77 questions, gathering descriptive program information for the 2018-2019 academic year (July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019) and was completed by participants at 131 higher education in prison programs. Right before the launch of the survey, lockdowns due to COVID-19 were spreading across the United States. Three questions were added to the survey to assess the needs and experiences of these programs as they adapted to the rapidly changing landscape in the face of the pandemic.

The same COVID-19 questions were then included in the Understanding the Landscape of Higher Education in Prison Programs Survey (Landscape Survey) in order to measure how the field’s response to COVID-19 had shifted in the interim nine months. The Landscape Survey was launched in December 2020, with data collection ending in January 2021. The survey was distributed to all participants of the 2020 Annual Survey (131 programs) and closed for participants in February 2021. The response rate for the survey was 45.8% (60 programs).


  • Programs at the beginning of the pandemic were focused on immediate needs of students and regaining contact; by December 2020 focused shifted on long-term impacts around advocacy on behalf of students and student wellness and safety.
  • Unlike colleges on the outside, the absence of access to technology meant that some college programs were forced to completely cease offering classes to incarcerated students or were only able to engage in correspondence programming.
  • The pandemic caused many prisons to limit visitor access and also movement of people who are incarcerated  within the prison. Many prisons entered into 24/7 lockdowns, impacting students' access to programs, including their education.
  • Due to closed or limited course offerings students have lost a year or more of progress towards a certificate or degree, and in some cases, inability to earn good-time credits during this period. 
  • There are many long-term and potentially debilitating effects of COVID-19 on higher education programs and students that we have yet to see or understand.

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