Improve prison education
Monday, April 12, 2004
AT MORE THAN $5 billion a year, California's prison budget is among the highest in the nation, with a huge chunk spent on housing parolees who are returned to prison for new offenses.
Of the 125,000 inmates released each year, 98,750 -- 79 percent -- are back in prison before their paroles end, a recidivism rate surpassed only by Utah. The 21 percent of California's prisoners who successfully complete their paroles, compares with a 42 percent national rate.
It means that of the state's 160,000 inmates, two-thirds are doing time as former parolees, each costing the taxpayers at least $30,000 a year.
So if there was a way to cut costs by reducing this recidivism rate, surely it would quickly be enacted. There is -- inmate education. But strangely, Sacramento has been slow to embrace the concept.
Considerable evidence shows that correctional education reduces crime and reincarceration. A Little Hoover Commission study found a 29 percent reduction in recidivism rates -- and higher wages -- for inmates who participate in education programs. Meanwhile, other states say lower recidivism has greatly enhanced overall public safety.
Yet for 10 years, the commission says, California inmate education has been "neglected, unfocused and poorly structured,'' a trend that AB1914 would reverse.
The bill, by Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, D-San Fernando, would take educational decisions away from prison wardens. Instead, it creates a 15- member prison education board to craft curricula and allocate funds, similar to three bills vetoed by former Gov. Gray Davis.
Legislators shouldn't be deterred and quickly send AB1914 to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
STATE PRISONS' REVOLVING DOOR
March 24, 2004
California's prison system fails to protect the taxpayers whose dollars it gobbles. Its repeat-offense rate is among the nation's highest. More than two-thirds of the state's prisoners commit a new crime or violate their parole within a few years of release.
Connect this failure to studies showing that literacy programs, vocational training and academic skills help keep inmates from returning to crime, and Californians should wonder why the state prison education system has been all but dismantled. Virtually all vocational classes have been ended, and literacy training is offered to only a few thousand of more than 100,000 eligible inmates.
Next week, state legislators will consider a bill to reverse the losses. AB 1914, introduced last month by Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez (D-San Fernando), would give real clout to a 15-member prison education board that includes outsiders such as the chancellor of the California State University system. The board, now an advisory body, would allocate prison education funds and measure the effectiveness of programs.
The state legislative analyst estimates that it would cost only about $125,000 to set up the board under the Montañez bill. That would be a small price to reduce the $1.5-billion yearly cost of reincarcerating parolees who either commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their parole. Predictably, however, the state prison guards union sees the bill as intruding on its princely authority. Former Gov. Gray Davis, a chief recipient of the guards' campaign contributions, vetoed a similar measure three times.
California's new prison department director, former San Quentin Warden Jeannie Woodford, is a believer in the link between public safety and prison education. Her boss, Youth and Adult Correctional Agency head Roderick Q. Hickman, said the governor hired her last month because she was persuasive in explaining how "substance abuse, mental illness, lack of education and other factors … drive criminality."
She faces a long haul. The department's latest prison education effort is laughable. Crafted in secret negotiations between the union and state officials last December, it ensured that guards would not face any new burdens, such as transporting inmates from cells to classrooms. Therefore, instructors "teach" from outside prisoners' cell doors. Fixing this program would give Woodford and Hickman a good start. To make real progress, however, the Legislature and the governor need to give the prison education reformers better tools, including AB 1914.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not stated a position on the Montañez bill. He may be tempted to leave reform strictly to Woodford. But sunshine helps reform. The governor should stand up to the guards union, as he has in the past, and support independent oversight of prison education.
Prison education plan hit
A teacher walks down the concrete hall of a housing unit at one of California's prison reception centers, pausing in front of a cell.
Here, for a half-hour each week, the instructor teaches the inmate through the cell door, amid the din of prison life. On their own, inmates complete packets of educational material -- a kind of distance learning.
For the state's prison system, this scenario -- one of the solutions the California Department of Corrections has come up with in its quest to save $400 million this fiscal year -- may soon become reality.
The Bridging Program would allow inmates to earn day-for-day credits while serving time at reception centers, thus increasing their chances of winning parole sooner and, in turn, decreasing the prison population and saving the state money.
But prison teachers, backed by their union, vehemently oppose the idea of teaching cell to cell, labeling it ineffective and potentially dangerous.
"We don't see slipping packets under cell doors and shouting lessons through bars as educational," said Richard Rios, a physical education teacher for the California Youth Authority who is also vice chairman for the California State Employees Association *Bargaining Unit 3. "We don't see that as viable."
The program was scheduled to begin Jan. 5, but members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000 succeeded last month in getting a temporary restraining order issued in Imperial County to stop the department from initiating the program in the 11 reception centers statewide.
A hearing has been scheduled for Friday, when a judge will decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction, which would suspend the program until an arbitrator can review it to determine if it violates health and safety provisions, said Paul Harris, assistant chief counsel for the CSEA. Safety is a primary concern for the teachers, who would be instructing inmates without protective gear or armed escorts.
The Bridging Program was one of the solutions adopted by the Legislature after $35 million was cut from the department's education budget last year. Vocational programs -- which teach job and life skills -- were cut at most institutions and the instructors were given surplus notices.
All vocational programs were cut at California State Prison, Sacramento. Only educational programs remain, some of which are done through "cell learning," said Lt. Fred Schroeder, acting public information officer for the prison. Only one vocational program -- shoe repair -- was cut at Folsom State Prison, but funding was shifted and the program was reopened as an institutional support program.
Vocational instructors displaced by the cuts will have first shot at the 160 teaching positions available in the reception centers, though without relocation funding, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the CDC.
"We're also looking to try to get vocational instructors retrained and recertified to do this," he said.
While prison educators agree that educating inmates sooner is necessary, they argue that classrooms, not cell-to-cell lessons, are needed.
"We do want our people at these institutions, we just would like it to be a more credible program than this," said Andy Hsia-Coron, a teacher at Soledad State Prison and chairman of Bargaining Unit 3. "The idea that the teacher is going to the prison door, teaching through that door and giving a packet to an inmate, and that having a positive effect on the inmate is ludicrous."
Prison officials say teaching in a classroom setting isn't a possibility, in part because inmates at reception centers are still being classified and their behavior assessed.
"A reception center does not lend itself to a classroom setting," Heimerich said.
But establishing a classroom culture in the housing unit would be nearly impossible, prison teachers counter.
"Most of the time they're going to be around their peers where there's power struggles and pecking orders," Hsia-Coron said. "They're not going to view themselves as students in those wings. The odds of an inmate even wanting to appear studious in the housing unit is very low."
Steve Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, a national prison education group, said the concept of distance learning in prison isn't unheard of, but it's usually reserved for inmates who are in protective custody or on lockdown, he said.
Distance learning at reception centers, he said, simply would not work. In Maryland, testing at reception centers had to be canceled because inmates were purposely flunking the placement exams, he said.
"During the first weeks of incarceration, inmates are angry and not
in a mood to be instructed," he said during an interview from his Maryland
home. "Then have a teacher come in and have a packet for someone who may
be illiterate? Just look at that and imagine how ineffective that's likely
The Bee's Niesha Gates can be reached at (916) 608-7454 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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