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Virus Adds Obstacles To Southwestern College Program For Local Inmates

Shawn Khalifa sits on the front porch of his transitional housing in Talmadge, May 8, 2020.
Shawn Khalifa
Shawn Khalifa sits on the front porch of his transitional housing in Talmadge, May 8, 2020.

Shawn Khalifa stands on the porch of his transitional housing unit in Talmadge assessing his new lot in life while his neighbor's dogs bark nonstop and heavy traffic whizzes by. He points to an automated hand sanitizer dispenser next to the front door—a new addition to the property.

"I'm probably not living in the safest housing environment because all of the residents that live at this house and there's six of us total, all have jobs," he said. "So we all are out in the community with the potential to bring back coronavirus to our housing."

But it’s certainly a better situation than he had just a few months ago.

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Earlier this year, Khalifa was released from the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility after 16 years. He was charged with felony murder as a teenager and now has served his time. But accompanying his newfound freedom is a new set of worries — getting sick with the coronavirus being just one.

Virus Adds Obstacles To Southwestern College Program For Local Inmates

Most importantly, he needs to find a way to support himself in a crashing economy. Something that’s easier with a college degree.

RELATED: California’s Felony Murder Law Change Means Freedom For San Diego Man

He was counting on getting help from Southwestern College’s Restorative Justice program, which provides an opportunity for inmates to take college classes while they’re on the inside and continue working toward their degree on the college’s eastern Chula Vista campus when they get out.

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The program is one-of-a-kind in San Diego County. But as with education everywhere, it’s been upended by the pandemic. Khalifa’s classes are now online-only, which is not easy for him.

"I never did well in school before being incarcerated, I always had ADHD," he said. "It's hard for me to focus and pay attention and just keep my attention on one thing. So online courses, ugh. I'm grinding it out, though. I work hard."

Despite his frustrations, Khalifa is actually doing better than most, said Patrice Milkovich, the program’s director. She’s worried that students who were already on the margins will get lost in the world of distance learning.

"We are trying to create that community of on-campus support and it's very difficult to do that remotely when those students are struggling, have housing issues, food security issues, don't have work," she said. "It's hard to see people and work with them without having that face to face contact. The relationships we build are based on trust, and it's hard to build trust over text or a phone call."

REALTED: The Pandemic Adds Another Layer Of Challenges To People Just Released From Prison

Milkovich said there are other obstacles, related specifically to online learning, that many of her students also have to overcome.

"They may have reluctance to get on Zoom calls with their instructors, some students across the state don't want to show their face because of embarrassment about their living conditions," she said. "Or they may have a difficult time to find a place to quietly do academic work."

Yet, in many ways, those on the outside have it easy compared to those in the program who are still incarcerated. Teachers are not able to go into the prisons to hold classes, so instead the program’s staff are trying to make do with what they can.

Staff at Southwestern College's Restorative Justice program pick up graded coursework to return to prisoners, May 2, 2020.
Patrice Milkovich
Staff at Southwestern College's Restorative Justice program pick up graded coursework to return to prisoners, May 2, 2020.

They pick up completed coursework packets from students in prison, let the papers sit for 48 hours while the germs die, and then hand them off to teachers. Two weeks later, teachers drop off the graded work.

This is far from an ideal situation, with inmates losing out on the one-on-one support that made the program unique. But Milkovich said they're not giving up, especially because the students need help now more than ever.

"We're trying to be an ambassador, an agent for how to navigate these crazy times," she said. "We don't want people to quit the path just because it's hard."

As for Khalifa, he’s trying to adjust to another kind of confinement as he distances himself from life in prison.

"Staying in a house on quarantine, I have this unyielding urge to get outside," he said. "I don't ever want to be in the house since I've been released."

Virus Adds Obstacles To Southwestern College Program For Local Inmates
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.