Rehab on hold: COVID devastated prison learning programs

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Joseph Sena has spent nearly half his 27 years in prison for manslaughter. And for almost as long, he’s been striving to make himself a better man than when he first arrived.

He has taken courses in creative writing, addressed his addictions, and attended school in prison, hoping to be judged fit for parole and ready to return home to Los Angeles if he ever becomes free.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, tearing through prisons and jails and killing thousands of prisoners in the U.S.

It severely disrupted or shut down the very programs prisoners most desperately need, which already were in short supply. Trauma counseling, trainings in carpentry, masonry and barbering, and college courses were slow to adjust to pandemic learning.

Isolation and uncertainty replaced creative outlets and mental health therapies, for months on end.

Sena grew depressed and anxious — he began to doubt that he’d be known for anything other than taking a life when he was 15.

He remembered the words of a poem he wrote to the man he was convicted of killing.

“I know you’re not here. I’ll remember your name. For you I will live. For us, I will change.”

He was afraid he’d never get the chance.

In a nation that incarcerates roughly 2 million people, the COVID pandemic was a nightmare for prisons. Overcrowding, subpar medical care and the ebb and flow of prison populations left most places unprepared to manage the spread of the highly contagious virus. At least 3,181 prisoners and 311 correctional staff died of virus-related causes through mid-January of this year, according to a COVID tracking project by the law school at the University of California in Los Angeles.

The 10 largest state prison systems suspended or severely curtailed in-person visitation for an average of 490 days before such restrictions were lifted, based on information and records obtained by The Associated Press. That meant no family visits, and no volunteers coming in to lead rehabilitation programs.

At the worst of times, prisoners said they were locked in their cells seemingly for weeks on end, their otherwise normal activities like phone calls to loved ones left up to the whims of correctional officers. And even when things seemed to return to normal, just one COVID-positive case in their living quarters would send them back into isolation for weeks.

Even as prisons granted early release to deal with overcrowding and staff shortages, those left behind bars to contend with dramatically altered prison conditions were more likely to be Black and Hispanic. Both demographics had experienced disproportionate COVID-19 infection and death rates outside of prison.

Prisons expanded mail correspondence learning for prisoners in GED or college programs and introduced learning via mobile tablets where they could. They required masks and distributed hand sanitizers for prisoners and staff, tested and isolated COVID-positive prisoners, encouraged social distancing where possible.

But prison residents said it wasn’t the same as the in-person classes.

“You were stranded,” said Valley State resident Michael Sykes. “It was like being on an island by yourself.”

A comprehensive review of in-prison education by the RAND Corporation found that prisoners who participate in any kind of courses while behind bars are up to 43% less likely to commit more crime and return to prison.

Education and rehabilitation programs can also have a positive impact on a prisoner’s parole eligibility. Many parole commissioners balance the earning of diplomas and certifications in a trade with prisoners’ record of good behavior, criminal history, and potential input from victims of the crime, among other factors.

In November, Bobby Gonzalez parked his car in the visitors’ lot at Valley State Prison and sat for a few minutes to process complex emotions. The 35-year-old was released on parole from the prison in September of 2019, after serving 16 years of a 25-to-life sentence for a gang-related murder.

While incarcerated in Chowchilla, he piloted an art and music therapy program that has been modeled across the state prison system in collaboration with its mental health department.

Some of the men he was about to reunite with had been residents of the prison for the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic, so he didn’t presume he knew what they’d been through.

But his mission was clear, he said: “I’m coming to rejuvenate them.”

Lead With Love, an activist arts and entertainment company, organized Gonzalez’s visit as part of a touring initiative to bring rehabilitative programming into prisons across California. The Nov. 4 stop on the tour included an advance screening of director Sol Guy’s deeply personal film, “The Death of My Two Fathers,” which began airing on PBS stations late last month.

The screening at Valley State Prison was held in the prison’s gymnasium which, until that day, had been closed for recreational activities like basketball as part of ongoing COVID restrictions. About 150 prisoners were allowed in for the film – individual bags of buttered popcorn and cold beverages included with admission – their excitement palpable after months of isolation.

Just before the screening, the prisoners sat silently in metal folding chairs, their eyes shut, through guided meditation, breathwork and interfaith prayers. They were primed for an emotional reception of Guy’s film, in which the filmmaker unpacks the meanings of fatherhood, family, race and identity around the death of his Black father and white stepfather.

Several men found Guy, who had been standing in the back of the gym during the screening, and pulled him into tearful hugs and expressed their gratitude.

Things are almost back to normal at prisons across the U.S., with most returning to regular day-to-day education and rehabilitative programs. Some were able to restart earlier, but new variants of the virus and surges in cases made plans for reopening tricky.

Corrections officials told the AP they remain committed to the making rehabilitation programs available.

Sena, the juvenile offender from Los Angeles, was recently transferred to a medium security facility closer to his mother and younger sisters in Los Angeles, which he sees as an encouraging sign on his journey. One of Sena’s sisters is a mixed martial artist, whose fighting career he hopes to help manage, when he’s released.

Sena said he held onto lessons he learned from InsideOUT Writers, an arts-based healing program that helped him pen the poem to his victim.

He doesn’t make excuses for his crime – in late July of 2010, he exchanged gunfire with 25-year-old Julian Obdulio Romero; the car crashed and Romero died at the scene.

Sena wants to make something of his life, and he credits the prison programs for helping him find a sense of purpose and inner peace.

“I want to find Joseph, the little kid that loves everybody, who was curious and loved to hug people, and loved to see people smile. That’s the Joseph that I want back.”