When Prison Education Programs are Cut, We All Lose

By Janice Chamberlin

I teach literacy and GED classes to 50 male, adult inmates each day.  In 2010, Indiana literacy, GED, and Vocational prison educators were told our services were no longer needed.  We became victims of the economy and the current trend of “restructuring,” better known as privatization.  I’m obviously not pleased, but “it is what it is.”  The new company eventually hired half of us back; we were asked to teach ten more students each day, work five more hours a week, all for the bargain price of fifty percent of our prior pay.  And we’re told to be grateful for a job in this economy!

In 2011, it was announced that funds for inmate college courses will be discontinued as of May, 2011.  There are rumors that some of the universities will attempt to assist those inmates who were very close to completion of their respective degrees.  If that occurs, it will be done on the universities’ dime.  Otherwise, the State said it intends to focus on offering job training skills.  For over 25 years, the prison at which I teach in Indiana was the site of a Purdue University campus.  Other prisons in the state were staffed by professors from Indiana State University and Vincennes University, among others. Prisoner-students earned one year certificates, Associates’ and Bachelor Degrees.

There is more to this issue than good teachers losing their jobs, incomes, or collective bargaining rights. There is more to the story than teachers who now contribute less to the tax base, and sometimes collect unemployment dollars.  There is the tragedy of prisoners losing their possibility at a second chance!  Indiana used to be very progressive when it came to prison education programs.  The quality of the schooling was unsurpassed.  The State administration knew that education lowered the rate of recidivism.  They promoted and supported educational programs.   Now, the programs have been slashed to a bare minimum, while Governor Mitch Daniels and other politicians still proclaim that Indiana leads in the re-entry programs of its inmates.

Unfortunately, many other prison education programs in the United States are even weaker or on the chopping block. I’ve become more aware of the appalling circumstances under which prisoners attempt to educate themselves.  Some aren’t even supplied with paper and a lousy pen!  Certified teachers are a luxury, and red tape makes it difficult to even take a correspondence class.

Many members of the public could care less; many think this “restructuring” is actually a good thing.

“They’re laying-off my kid’s teachers and cutting back on children’s education, so why should I care about criminals?”

“Why should my hard earned money pay you to teach those bums?”

“Those criminals are in prison, not a country club!”

“I can’t afford to send my own kid to college, but those creeps get a free ride.”

Sound familiar?  Many would agree with these comments.  I’m on a mission to change the way people think about this issue.  And I’m looking for like minded people to help me spread the word.  So let’s look at the other side of the story, and spread the word to every corner of the world!

Most prisoners will be released back to society sooner or later.  Their chances of surviving on the “outside” are very slim if they aren’t educated.  Statistics tell us they will re-offend, often out of desperation, and return to prison unless they have the tools of survival.  How many of us could obtain decent employment without a high school diploma or GED?  We can rant all day about the criminal’s poor choices, getting what he or she deserves, or how it “serves them right.”  We could discuss the lack of fairness when a person commits a crime then actually gets the “privilege” of an education that “my kid can’t get.”  And I could expound for pages and pages on the lack of choices that many prisoners had in their youth.  I’d tell you how some people aren’t taught the skills that you and I think of as common sense. Research could be quoted that shows how education and age are the two things proven to lower recidivism. I could remind you that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

But let’s simply talk objectively about our pocket books. This may be the only way to get through to those opposed to correctional education.  We can use our tax money to educate the offender, most likely helping him or her stay out of prison once released.  This ex-offender can then be a tax paying member of society.  Or, we can let him sit all day for years on end, not spending our money on correctional education, and punish him until the cows come in.  That way, we can continue to pay $25-30,000 a year to house him and “punish him for his poor decisions!”  That’ll show ‘em!

Janice Chamberlin, the author of Locked UpWith Success, has been a licensed teacher since 1973. A former elementary teacher in public and private schools, Janice worked as a child welfare manager for several years. For the past 14 years she has taught prison education in Indiana State Prison. She can be reached at either Locked Up With Success or on Facebook.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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