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Locked Out of Higher Education

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by Garry Boulard

As a collaborative program bringing the instructional resources of Wesleyan University to the maximum security Cheshire Correctional Institute in Connecticut enters its second semester, prison and higher education experts are seeing decreasing support for similar programs across the country.

“Whatever backing, which was never substantial to begin with, such programs might have once received, it is generally less today,” says Dr. Bob Roberts, the executive director of Project Return, which was once housed on the campus of Tulane University but ended its prison education program in Louisiana after the state withdrew funding.

“It’s unfortunate that this has become a national trend,” says Dr. Nancy Rogers, the associate vice president of academic affairs at Indiana State University, which offers two- and four-year degree programs for inmates at five correctional institutes in Indiana. “The studies we’ve seen from our state Department of Corrections show a significantly lower rate of recidivism among ex-inmates who have received a degree than with those who haven’t. So if the goal is reducing crime, obviously prison education programs have to be regarded as productive.”

But they are also regarded as expendable for many states entering the second fiscal year of a stubborn national recession.

“Prison education programs in California have greatly been victim to a larger corrections cost-cutting effort,” says Karen Humphrey, the executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

In his most recent budget, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for reducing the state’s prison education program by $250 million.

But in the face of such trends, the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education received a near $300,000 grant from the Bard Prison Initiative — a Bard College-sponsored program to provide liberal arts courses and degrees to inmates in five New York state prisons — which reports an about 45 percent recidivism drop in the U.S. among inmates who have participated in prison education offerings over the last 20-plus years.

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“This is actually a two-year pilot program,” says Cathy Crimmins Lechowicz, program manager of the center who has spearheaded an education outreach for 18 Cheshire inmates taking courses in sociology and English essay writing last semester and nonlab chemistry and introduction to government courses this semester. “Our hope is that the inmates — since we are a liberal arts institution — will really be able to experience the range of liberal arts.”

Lechowicz says that, even though Wesleyan’s prison courses have proved popular among the inmates, the program’s future may depend on whether additional funding can be secured.

“As it stands now, we really don’t know what is going to happen,” she says. “Obviously, we are willing to explore any route that might give us support.”

In Indiana, prison education courses offered by ISU are contracted out by the state’s Department of Corrections (IDOC). Due to a recent restructuring of the department’s education offerings, Ivy Tech Community College will provide GED, literary and vocational education to inmates, while the university will continue to offer two- and four-year degree programs.

Such programs have remained operational in Indiana, says corrections department spokesman Doug Garrison, because lawmakers like the lower recidivism rates they produce.

“They are seen as being very beneficial in that regard,” he says.

According to IDOC data, the state’s overall recidivism rate dropped from 37.8 in 2007 to 37.4 percent in 2008, marking the third consecutive year the rate declined. But for former inmates with college degrees that rate drops to 21.2 percent.

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Similar patterns have also impressed legislators in California, where the recidivism rate among released inmates who had participated in prison education programs at one institution — Ironwood State Prison — was 20 percent, compared with 70 percent for the general prison population.

“That proves that these programs have a positive and lasting impact,” says Vicki Attaway, the associate dean of distance learning and noncredit programs at Palo Verde College in Blythe, Calif. Palo Verde offers prison education programs to more than 1,000 inmates at 23 correctional institutions in California.

Even though California may reduce spending on such efforts, Schwarzenegger may have opened the door to more prison education with his proposal to up the budget for the state’s higher education system from 7.5 percent to a guaranteed 10 percent by constitutional amendment. Schwarzenegger has also called for reducing California’s prison budget from 11 to 7 percent.

“Everyone here is talking about it,” says Humphrey. “If the proposal becomes reality, this may result in less prison education programs because the corrections budget will be cut. But the irony is that the state could end up with even more prison education programs than before if the colleges and universities that are interested and supportive of such programs see their budgets increased.”

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