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Rehab on hold: COVID devastated prison learning programs

CHOWCHILLA, California (AP) — Joseph Sena has spent nearly half his 27 years in prison for manslaughter. 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's ever freed.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, tearing through prisons and killing thousands, it severely disrupted or shut down the very programs prisoners most desperately need to prepare them for eventual release.

Trauma counseling, training 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 — a disproportionate number of them Black and Hispanic — the COVID pandemic was a nightmare for prisons. Overcrowding, subpar medical care, staffing shortages 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 for weeks on end, their otherwise normal activities like phone calls to loved ones left up to the whims of correctional officers. And when things seemed to return to normal, just one COVID-positive case in their living quarters would send them back into isolation for weeks.

Some prisons expanded mail correspondence learning for prisoners in GED or college programs and introduced learning via mobile tablets where they could.

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

“People weren’t prepared for this,” said Oscar Martinez, a resident of Valley State Prison. “I believe it created a lot of trauma for people, on top of the trauma they already had. The cell that you have in your mind, when you start suffocating in there, it’s just like cage after cage after cage.”

It’s hard to overstate the positive impact of educational and skills training on prisoner rehabilitation, said Margaret diZerega, who directs the Vera Institute of Justice’s Unlocking Potential initiative, which is focused on expanding college in prison. Given that 90% of people who are incarcerated in the U.S. will return to their communities, prisoner access to rehabilitative programming should matter to everyone, she said.

“We know from the research that these kinds of programs reduce recidivism rates. They improve safety in the prisons, there are fewer violent incidents, which is positive for the staff who work at the prisons and for the people who live in the prisons,” diZerega said.

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.

“It’s hugely important that people have hope and that we, as a society, care about their human dignity and their potential,” diZerega said.

Education and rehabilitation programs can also help a prisoner’s parole eligibility. Many parole commissioners consider earning diplomas and certifications, along with prisoners’ record of good behavior.

“I know that I have to go to a board, in front of these commissioners, and I don’t want these commissioners to say, ‘So what happened in these two years?’” said Sena who, as of this month, becomes eligible for parole in 2024.

——— 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. Keep going, like we always have, because I know I am.”

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 paper bags of buttered popcorn and cold sodas 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.

“When we talk about the power of story in generations, in loving, forgiving and healing, wrestling and facing our fears, and overcoming, we’re changing the community,” said Daniel Henson, a 40-year-old resident of Valley State Prison who was incarcerated for murder at age 16. He became parole eligible in 2021.

“Sol coming in here proves the point of all of us who believe in restorative justice,” Henson said. “People can go from the worst to the best.”

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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 reopening tricky.

Corrections officials told the AP they're committed to the rehabilitation programs.

“We know that even just some programming positively impacts the likelihood of someone’s success in their reentry to the community,” Dana Simas, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an email.

Guy said it’s not just on prisons to ensure the programs are available and plentiful.

“It’d be really easy to say, ‘Well, the California Department of Corrections should do better.’ But that’s half of the circle. The other half is, we in society should ask more questions and knock on the doors,” the filmmaker said.

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 step in his journey.

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.

Esperanza Sanchez, Sena’s mother, who was only 13 when she gave birth, said she encourages her son to share his story of transformation.

“I know you have a purpose,” she recalled telling her son. “You’ve been in prison, you’ve been in jail, you’ve been in juvenile hall. You have that story. Your testimony is very important for others.”

Sena credits the prison programs for helping him find a sense of purpose and inner peace.

“My teacher from InsideOUT Writers told me it’s not about becoming a new person — it’s finding the person that you really are,” he said. “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.”

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Follow Aaron Morrison on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.