Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

“When are we going back to school?” inmate Shawn Sobotka asks Cook Unit staff. “I have to pass my mandatory… I have family to see.”

Arizona state law ARS 31-229 requires every inmate with a sentence of more than six months complete the Functional Literacy Program (FLP) through passing mandatory tests in language, reading, and mathematics at the eighth grade level. Upon completing the FLP, each inmate becomes eligible for pay increases, certain skilled jobs, and the Earned Incentive Program (EIP), a three-phase system that provides more privileges, such as early release.

On Monday, March 15, the classrooms at the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) Eyman Complex at Cook Unit in Florence, Arizona, resumed teaching sessions after a brief closure. The closure had been enacted after a standoff due to the sudden enforcement of new COVID-19 procedures put in place by Department of Corrections (DOC) staff. 

To maintain compliance with the state, the DOC also restarted its mandatory testing, but only for inmates like Sobotka, who have not passed all the required subjects within the FLP. However, many students faced unpredictable 14-day quarantine lockdowns due to possible exposure to COVID-19 from other inmates who became ill. Instructor-led classes with an assigned teacher’s aide also remained unavailable, making it increasingly difficult for students to pass their tests in a timely manner. 

“Those who suffered the most were Functional Literacy students who must pass their tests in order to be eligible for early release, earn privileges, and be eligible for work assignments,” said senior teacher’s aide Kenneth Eaton. 

Take Antonio DeJesus, for example. He was scheduled to be released back in February 2021, but had no one tutoring him for his final tests in mathematics. As a result, his release date was moved to mid-July, time he could have spent with his mom before she passed away. 

For inmates close to release from Cook Unit, the burden and stress caused by lifetime probation can be a scary reality. There is no “one size fits all” solution to combat the high rates of recidivism in many prisons across the country. However, programs that support inmates in obtaining their GEDs and college degrees can in turn boost self-esteem, provide employment opportunities, and instill a willingness to make positive changes and healthy choices. 

Eaton emphasizes the importance of consistent access to these education programs, saying: “Without instruction, these students were continuously tested and failed, and some [were] held past their release dates. Had education been a true priority, accommodations could have been made to ensure success.” 

As of March 29, the much-anticipated Moderna vaccine has been administered among the inmate population. Restrictions that affect programming and education have been removed. What does this mean for the future of the Cook Unit? Will life ever get back to “normal”?

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Chastyn "Nova" Hicks

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer incarcerated in Arizona. Writing is Chastyn’s passion, and he sees it as his calling. He has been witness to many experiences as an individual who straddles different worlds: gay, straight, Puerto Rican, Latino and Black. He hopes to inspire others to be the best versions of themselves, and to improve the world through his words and his voice. Chastyn wants people to know that they are never alone, he is there to listen and provide hope.