Back to School: What Confronting the Challenges of COVID-19 Looks Like for Students and Teachers in Jail Lockdown

“Tutors at your fingertips,” ZOOM and hand-delivered lesson plans result in record number of Santa Rita Jail inmates graduating from high school during global pandemic

Sergeant Daniel Molleson, director of Inmate Services at Santa Rita Jail; Lillian Santos-Stables, principal at Five Keys; and Alameda County Sheriff’s Lieutenant John Johnson (Photo: Business Wire)

SAN FRANCISCO--()--As schools across the country begin a new academic year under the shadow of a global pandemic, ugly discourse and high anxiety, educators at the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, CA are confronting many 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.

Calling it “tutors at your fingertips,” a new service launched earlier this week. A school hotline for inmates who were distributed tablets allows them to schedule and phone in for tutoring from the Five Keys teachers who are on-site at the jail but remotely tutoring from their offices. The jail also expanded their inmate ZOOM visitation program so that teachers can “visit” with students in supervised online sessions and is continuing a program instituted in March, where books, lesson plans and other learning materials are prepared by the teachers, distributed to the students and then returned and graded.

Due to the creativity and exceptional adjustments of Five Keys and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office working in tandem, 15 incarcerated students at the Santa Rita jail graduated high school this summer — more than any year before, according to Sergeant Daniel Molleson, Director of Inmate Services. “COVID actually opened up a new opportunity for us. 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 continue to provide education to the jail’s inmates was jump-started last March immediately after COVID-19 shuttered schools across the nation.

The mission is urgent for Five Keys schools to continue imparting lessons in civics, history, math, and ethics has always been urgent, but now especially so, says Santos-Stables.

Continuing inmates’ access to education reduces crime and increases the likelihood of successful reentry to society. 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 Sgt. 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.”

For Santos-Stables and Sgt. Molleson, who are a dedicated team on a mission to educate inmates, moments like celebrating the graduations of the 15 students including Tiara Arnold, 27, are life-changing. Arnold was arrested at age 17, and has lived at Santa Rita, and then prison, but is back awaiting an appeal of her conviction.

Says Arnold: “When I got arrested, my life was really going in the wrong direction. 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. 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 and Programs

Dedicated to getting people’s lives back on track, Five Keys Schools and Programs and its more than 790 dedicated employees serve more than 25,000 individuals each year throughout the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and nine counties through the state of California. Five Keys was founded in 2003 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department as the first accredited charter high school in the nation to provide diploma programs for adults in county jails. Today its efforts have grown exponentially. The organization interrupts the cycles of homelessness, substance abuse, violence, literacy and incarceration through our 80 community learning centers, transitional housing shelters, career centers, and community-based workforce networks by investing in their humanity so that they can be self-determined to change their lives. Five Keys also hires people directly into our transitional employment positions for formerly incarcerated individuals and people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness, while also employing over 300 formerly incarcerated individuals in full-time, benefited positions.

About the Santa Rita Jail

Located in Dublin, CA, the jail holds about 4000 inmates housed in one of eighteen modern housing units. It is considered a "mega-jail" and ranks as the third largest facility in California and the fifth largest in the nation. Santa Rita is accredited by the American Correctional Association, thus making it the only facility in California holding this prestigious award. It is recognized as one of the most technologically innovative jails in the world. A robotic system speeds delivery of laundry supplies and food to all areas of the 113-acre campus. State-of-the-art criminal justice systems serve the internal operation while the largest rooftop solar power system converts enough electricity to power nearly one-half of the facility's electrical needs during daylight hours. Sheriff Ahern's philosophy of cost-effective delivery of services is reflected in the private sector partnerships that support the jail's operation. A modern cook-chill food service operation produces 12,000 economical meals per day. On-site medical and mental health services save money while reducing the patient load at county medical facilities. Throughout its history, the Santa Rita Jail Facility has served the criminal justice system and contributed to the safety of the citizens of the County of Alameda by providing a safe, secure, and humane environment for inmates and staff.


Mary Beth Sammons


Mary Beth Sammons