Letters that help incarcerated students feel a little less alone

Dial Fellows

Young students in prison are isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Educational Excellence in Alternate Settings’ letter-writing campaign aims to foster connection in this trying time. Sign up to write your own letter by May 31st.

The COVID-19 crisis has made it incredibly difficult for teachers across the country to reach their students. Classrooms have been forced to move online, to mixed results, exposing existing inequities in our education system.

But COVID-19 has made it even harder for the thousands of young students in our country’s prisons and jails to access a quality education. David Domenici — whose organization, CEEAS, operates the Travis Hill Schools for incarcerated individuals in New Orleans — reports that the public health crisis is jeopardizing his students’ education.

“We are working with agencies across the country where remarkable people continue to try to find ways to ensure that young people are getting some sort of education, but that is becoming increasingly dangerous, as students and staff are getting sick,” Domenici wrote in a recent newsletter.

Now, learning has to happen remotely — sometimes through tablets, but more often through academic packets distributed to students and graded two or three times a week. CEEAS is working with facilities across the country to transition to remote learning by training cohorts of teachers online, supporting the roll-out of new technology, and building relevant and engaging curricular materials.

But many of these students are now kept in near isolation in an effort to protect them from COVID-19, and are suddenly, resoundingly alone.

Domenici, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, had an idea to help his students feel less alone: Care-Mail, a letter-writing campaign. Since 2013, CEEAS has run a nationwide poetry initiative and competition, Words Unlocked. As part of that initiative, students submit poems and get written feedback from readers. Domenici had seen the power of that written connection.

And thus was born Care-Mail.

For the months of April and May, CEEAS is soliciting volunteers to write letters to incarcerated students around the country. The point isn’t only to encourage, to edify, to boost morale; it’s also to foster connection for CEEAS students during such an isolating time.

“If you’re a kid — or an adult — in one of these facilities right now, life is really precarious,” Domenici says. “We’re trying to break down the barriers of prison walls.”

So far, Care-Mail has connected over 1,400 letter writers with students in over 30 schools in 14 states. Writers have included people from every walk of life — a farmer in Virginia, a retired National Park Service ranger in Oregon, a law professor in Hawaii, even fellow students from Norway — and also include CEEAS’s own teachers, who started writing to their students after they were stopped from seeing them.

In response to one of the 2,800 letters from these volunteers, one of Domenici’s students wrote, “It’s nice to see that [there’s] someone out there who cares enough to take time to write to me. I’ve been taking your advice of planting seeds with my own thoughts. Every chance I get, I plant seeds.”

Read a selection of letters written as part of the Care-Mail program here, and sign up to write your own letter by the end of May.