Columnist

{ November 1999 } 

Corrections Education:
A Learning Profiles Special Report

Peter S. Langley
Utah State Office of Education

From: LEARNING PROFILES,
A regular column highlighting adult education programs throughout Utah


Crime. It seems to be everywhere. It's on the evening news. It's in the newspapers. Talk of how to fight crime seems to dominate conversation. Should we hire more police? Maybe build more jails?

Despite the popular debate, education as a tool to battle crime is rarely mentioned. Yet the statistics indicate that lack of education is a primary cause of crime today. Consider the following:

Based on the evidence, one can conclude that lack of education is a mitigating factor in determining who goes to jail. Senator Arlen Spector (R-Penn.) stressed this point in an address to the American Corrections Association saying that in the battle against crime, "the starting direction is education."

Improving our educational system will no doubt help keep people out of jail. However, what about the men and women who are currently incarcerated? Is enough being done to ensure that prisoners have the life skills to be productive outside prison walls?

Based on overwhelming evidence, the answer is no. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 7 to 10 percent of inmates with low literacy skills receive literacy education while incarcerated. Furthermore, Linda Timmins, Inmate Services Coordinator for Salt Lake County, Utah reports that about 103 inmates out of a population of roughly 1,000 received their GED or high school diploma while incarcerated in the County Jail System. According to Timmins, this is not due to a lack of motivation among students. "There is a stigma that inmates do not want to learn, but I have found this not to be the case at all." Prison educator

Gina Davis of the Sussex Correctional Institution in Delaware agrees saying, "When the time is right, and the right attitude is there, incarcerated adults are the hungriest of learners."

Rather than a lack of willing students, prison programs are constrained by limited budgets and a lack of resources. This is largely due to an American public that is fed up with crime. Senator Specter voiced the opinion of many Americans, "…people are furious, absolutely indignant…with the problem of crime in this country." The senator went on to say that legislators are hesitant to support programs that could be seen as coddling criminals. "On the political trail, it makes a great sound bite to say that we're not going to send people to Holiday Inns and they ought not to have facilities that make it (prison) habitable."

Despite the controversy, Senator Specter feels that funding for corrections education should continue. "It seems to me fundamental and axiomatic; we need to have realistic rehabilitation and have people learn to read and write and have a job when they come out of jail. It hurts sometimes on the political stump, but I have had a long-standing voting record to that effect."

The evidence seems to support the Senator's conclusions. A Virginia study found that out of a sample of 3,000 inmates, 49 percent of those who did not participate in correctional education programs were reincarcerated compared to 20 percent who did participate in the programs. Similar results are documented in A Statistical & Economic Analysis of Project Horizon: The Utah Corrections Education Recidivism Reduction Plan. The analysis found that the rate of recidivism dropped 18 percent at the Central Utah Correctional Facility following implementation of an education program for inmates.

Furthermore, education programs dramatically diminish the financial burden to the taxpayer. According to Jeff Galli of the Utah State Office of Education, the cost of incarcerating one prisoner per year is approximately $22,000. By preventing one inmate from returning to prison, most education programs have more than justified their cost.

David Bokel an AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer at the Central Utah Correctional Facility agrees citing figures that indicate 89 percent of crimes in are committed by repeat offenders. "Even a very small reduction in recidivism will result in substantial savings in less incarceration costs and less damage due to crime," Bokel said.

Despite the promise education gives to reducing recidivism rates, simply offering traditional GED or high school completion classes is not enough. Often times, prisoners need more fundamental training. "Many inmates don't have basic study skills," says Timmins. "We need to teach students how to learn and be successful." In addition, Timmins reports that many prison students suffer from a lack of self-esteem, going so far as to report being in "the dumb class" in school.

To help deal with the unique problems facing the prison population, education is becoming focused on life and survival skills. Classes in anger management, effective communication skills, and parenting are being implemented in prisons throughout the country. These classes will help ensure that once released, prisoners will have the tools necessary to function effectively in today's society.

Fighting crime is on the minds of many Americans and is a hot political issue. A larger police force, more prisons, and stricter penalties for offenders are all methods that have been used to lower the crime rate. However, rarely does the American public look at increased educational opportunities as a solution. In an era of quick fixes and sound bites, we may be looking past the ultimate weapon in the war on crime…education.

 


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