Opinion | A Health Crisis, as Seen From Inside a Prison

An inmate talks about the AIDS experience, and a leader in prison education stresses the value of in-person teaching.

To the Editor:

As a person living inside a New York State prison, I lived through the last major health crisis, the AIDS epidemic. There are similarities and differences between AIDS and the Covid-19 pandemic.

We lost many people, but we found a way to slow the spread of AIDS through inmate-to-inmate communication and education. Then, we created PEPA, the Prisoner Education Project on AIDS, which was eventually replicated across the country and along with advocacy groups saved many lives. Something similar is needed now.

The best way to improve safety is to reduce the prison population.

Maintaining a safe distance from others in prison is impossible. As a result, we will potentially suffer widespread infection, and the impact could quickly spread to communities beyond the bars. Correction officers and employees interact with people in prison and return to their homes daily.

Peer education is vital for explaining the importance of and best means for social distancing and hygiene while still facilitating communication with family and friends.

Most crucially, the policies we are living under will be most effective when we have a say in shaping them. Allowing prisoners an active role in creating a safer environment will protect lives both inside and out.

David Gilbert
Shawangunk, N.Y.

To the Editor:

As a leader in the field of higher education in prison and also as a formerly incarcerated individual, I know something about social distancing.

Our organization, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, has spent the last 22 years striving to narrow the distance between imprisoned men and women and the society to which they will someday return, by providing college degree programs.

Like so many other educators, we have had to suspend in-person instruction to protect our teachers and students and prison staff against the deadly pandemic.

Unlike schools on the outside, most prisons, including those in New York State, have no internet access for online learning. While I am grateful that our college partners are allowing our students to complete correspondence assignments in the next few weeks, the most effective higher education in prison is delivered in person. It changes the conversations in the housing units and in the mess halls. Prison administrators will agree that it creates safer prisons.

I was in prison in the early 1990s, when federal funding for such programs was slashed, and I know firsthand that no correspondence course can replace the interpersonal relationships developed in the classroom between faculty and students, or replace the peer learning and mentorship I received from my classmates at Sing Sing. Overnight, it felt as if we lost all connection to the outside world. We lost hope.

While I’m mindful that the current suspension is necessary and temporary, I hope that incarcerated students will not be overlooked when the country begins to recover. The scariest sound in a prison is silence.

Sean Pica
Ossining, N.Y.
The writer is executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.

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