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Redesigning carceral education for a pandemic

How ID students reimagined education for incarcerated women

By Nuria Sheehan

When the pandemic arrived in the US last year, prisons, jails, and re-entry houses were hit especially hard, quickly becoming COVID hotspots. In addition to threatening the lives of incarcerated individuals, the pandemic also shut down the educational services that are key to finding work and stability after release.

Access to education in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism rates by over 40 percent. Reentry programs with robust educational offerings similarly reduce rates of re-incarceration, with the first 72 hours after release being especially critical.

In 2019, ID adjunct faculty Kelly Costello co-founded WIND, Women Initiating New Directions, with Tracy Lawson McKeithen and Lisa D’Angelo. WIND supports current and recently incarcerated women with educational programs at Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC) and Grace House, a residential re-entry program. The classes—which include essential skills, financial literacy, writing for personal growth, and a course called Designing Your Future—focus on supporting the whole person as they rebuild support systems and re-envision their life paths after incarceration.

WIND aims to help women create a vision and a plan for when they get out. The most important thing is to get people excited about what they could do. We help them realize their goals and tell their story.
—Kelly Costello, ID Adjunct Faculty

When the pandemic forced widespread lockdowns, the classes ended abruptly at CCDOC. Grace House was able to continue by holding classes outdoors until cold weather required classes to move to Zoom. But the virtual classroom posed a new set of challenges.

To better understand and solve for the many challenges of teaching in jails and re-entry centers during a pandemic, Kelly Costello partnered with ID clinical professor Tomoko Ichikawa through her communication design course. Initially, the project aimed to redesign educational materials to better meet the needs of remote learning. But as the team of four students—Jocelyn Jia (MDes 2022), Haiping Liao (MDes 2021), Anand Nagapurkar (MDes 2021), and Callie Zhou (MDes 2021)—assessed these contexts, they realized they needed to look beyond materials to the entire learning experience.

Designing for human connection

The ID students conducted in-depth interviews with CCDOC and Grace House directors and staff as well as WIND facilitators to understand the students’ learning environments and the instructional challenges. But it wasn’t until the team had the direct experience of shadowing Zoom courses that they grasped the full scope of the challenge:

The big aha moment with the observation was that it’s way harder than we thought. In the observation we got to see it—how students didn’t know how to be on Zoom, to place their phones so you could see their faces, or to unmute when speaking. You can’t hear that secondhand from the instructor or facilitator, you have to be there to understand the students’ experience. That was when we decided to reframe our initial challenge: that it’s not only about redesigning the worksheets that they got. It’s the experience before and after that. The students needed to know what to expect from the four-week class so they could be more engaged during it. It was a critical moment for us to understand that we had to pivot.
—Jocelyn Jia (MDes 2022)

Through their observations and interviews, the team identified a set of six design principles focused on rebuilding the sense of connection that was lost with the COVID restrictions: accessibility, flexibility, equitability, relationship building, engagement, and transparency.

Support and connection before, during, and after the course

Guided by these six principles, the team generated seed ideas through a co-design workshop with WIND facilitators, followed quickly by prototypes that could be tested in real time. The result was a suite of recommendations to provide connection and guidance at all points before, during, and after a module.

To orient the women to the learning experience, the team created a set of pre-module processes and components that included a welcome letter with facilitator bios. The women chose a facilitator based on those bios, creating more agency in their learning journey. The women also completed a pre-module survey, allowing the facilitators to create lessons tailored to the group’s specific learning goals and educational backgrounds.

Student welcome kits included a journey map to help the women understand the Designing Your Future course, as well as an overall journey map visually representing how each module fit together. Grace House students also receive a phone holder with Zoom etiquette tips to improve communication.

 

To help facilitators build and maintain connection throughout the course, the ID team developed a newsletter that recaps key learnings and shares student work each week.

The weekly update proved to be a way to build continuity and community. It served as a means to share what was common across participants or present insights that might benefit other participants.

—Wendy Manning (MDM 2021), WIND facilitator

As the women finish each module, the ID team saw an opportunity to keep their momentum going by celebrating each participant’s accomplishments. WIND implemented ID’s recommendations that facilitators provide handwritten letters to the participants, reflecting on their learning journeys, along with a copy of their work and a list of resources for ongoing support.

WIND also started assessing the impact of the course through a post-course survey that the ID team created:

The ID team’s design solutions allowed the CCDOC Designing Your Future class to resume in April 2021 after being on pause for over a year.

I plan to use the same prototypes in WIND’s next correspondence course with Cook County Jail: ‘Writing for Empowerment.’ The welcome packet with the photos and short bios of our feedback coaches will help the participants see our feedback as coming from real people. The weekly updates will be informative but also motivational.

—Penny L. Hirsch, PhD, WIND board member and facilitator

Designing for context meant not only considering COVID restrictions, but also the inherent limitations of jails, re-entry houses, and limited nonprofit budgets. Thus, the final products aren’t static, but dynamic digital components that WIND plans to adapt as needed to keep providing strong educational programming throughout the pandemic and beyond.

The project was really meaningful and a great opportunity for us designers to understand women's situation in the criminal justice system and actually do something about it. We got to really understand their needs through the lens of WIND. It’s especially important because the needs of incarcerated women don't get as much attention as those of men.
—Callie Zhou (MDes 2021)

Continuing and expanding

In the summer of 2021, the project was further developed by Anand Nagapurkar and ID fellows Priyanka Lalwani (MDes 2023) and Victoria Marie Williamson (MDes 2022).

The program is also evolving by adding Lived Experience Leaders to its classes. Through a grant from Northwestern University, the WIND team will be training and hiring women who have transitioned out of CCDOC and Grace House to become program facilitators. These new leaders will provide further insight and direction by working with the ID team in co-designing class components.

ID’s design solutions have enabled WIND to relaunch classes and deepen learning as the program continues adapting to the ongoing pandemic. Beyond the pandemic, WIND hopes that ID’s work can help bring the program to other parts of Illinois and potentially other states.

Students

Jocelyn Jia
Priyanka Lalwani
Haiping Liao
Anand Nagapurkar
Victoria Marie Williamson
Callie Zhou

Faculty

Tomoko Ichikawa

Partners

Kelly Costello, WIND co-founder and ID adjunct faculty
Penny Hirsch, WIND board member

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