As schools across the country begin a new academic year under the shadow of a global pandemic, educators at the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail in Dublin are also confronting their own challenges to continue access to education behind bars for more than 300 adult students.
“We realized that there was a greater need than ever for us to keep connecting with students during COVID,” says Lillian Santos-Stables, principal at the Santa Rita Jail high school education program, which is run by Five Keys Schools and Programs.
Launched earlier this month, “Tutors at Your Fingertips” is a hotline for inmates to schedule and phone in for tutoring from Five Keys teachers who are on-site at the jail but tutoring remotely from their offices.
The jail also expanded its inmate ZOOM-based online visitation program so that teachers can “visit” with students in supervised sessions, and is continuing a program instituted in March, with books, lesson plans and other learning materials prepared by the teachers distributed to the students and then returned and graded.
Due to the creativity and adjustments made by Five Keys and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, 15 incarcerated students at the Santa Rita jail graduated high school this summer — more than any year before, according to Sgt. Daniel Molleson, director of Inmate Services. “COVID actually opened up a new opportunity for us,” Molleson said. “Our inmates became hypervigilant about focusing on their own self development and really focused on their education this summer. We are creating a new way of learning and moving away from the way it used to be. We are creating the new normal.”
Throughout the summer, small groups of socially distanced students also met for targeted courses on health and hygiene (especially significant during the pandemic). This fall, there will be podcasts and learning sessions on voter registration and information on the importance of voting and how inmates can vote.
The creative pivot to provide education to the jail’s inmates was jump-started last March after COVID-19 shuttered schools across the nation.
The need for Five Keys schools to continue teaching classes in civics, history, math, and ethics has always been urgent, but now especially so, says Santos-Stables.
Providing access to education reduces crime and increases the likelihood of successful reentry to society, she said. Research shows that higher education in prison is a proven tool for changing lives. One study found that participants in correctional education were 48% less likely to return to crime. Another showed that education in prison can improve employment among returning citizens.
Education behind bars transforms lives
“School gives our inmates a sense of drive and accomplishment and it occupies their time,” says Molleson. “Our students feel productive and that they are making positive changes in their lives. Without it we would have more fights, depression. It just changes their overall well-being. It changes their thinking to not look at time in custody as wasted time in their lives.”
One example that graduating can be life-changing, according to Molleson and Santo-Stable, is Tiara Arnold.
Arnold, now 27, was arrested at 17. She was convicted and sent to prison. She is now back at Santa Rita awaiting an appeal.
“When I got arrested, my life was really going in the wrong direction,” Arnold said. “I was really distracted and made a lot of poor decisions. But while life was progressing for everyone else, I didn’t go to prom, I didn’t graduate from high school, and I didn’t get to do the one thing my mom asked me to do, which was to get my high school diploma.
“I was in the worst place my life could be,” Arnold added. “But now, since people invested so much in me and helped me believe in myself, I am determined to lead a life that is meaningful and helpful to others. I plan to go to college and hope to help my mom with her business and help other at-risk kids who are struggling.”
About Five Keys Schools & Programs
Dedicated to getting people’s lives back on track, Five Keys Schools and Programs and its more than 790 employees serve more than 25,000 inmates each year throughout the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and nine other California counties.
Five Keys was founded in 2003 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department as the first accredited in-jail charter high school in the nation offering diploma programs for adults.
Its mission is to disrupt a cycle of homelessness, substance abuse, violence, illiteracy and incarceration that keeps many from seeing a way forward. More than 300 former inmates now work in full-time positions for the program.
About the Santa Rita Jail
Santa Rita houses about 4,000 inmates in 18 units. It is the third-largest jail in California and the fifth largest in the nation. It is also the only jail in California accredited by the American Correctional Association and is recognized as one of the most technologically innovative jails in the world, including a rooftop solar system that produces enough electricity to meet nearly half of the 113-acre facility's needs during daylight hours.