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Math And Literature In Jail


March 6, 2005

Prisoners in state correctional institutions should be able to take college courses. Education is one way to keep them from lapsing back into the criminal life after they've been released.

Connecticut has spent nearly $1 billion on its prisons in the past 20 years, in large part because the same people keep getting sent back.

A legislative study two years ago found that 70 percent of released inmates were arrested for at least one new crime within three years. State Rep. Robert Farr of West Hartford, who has studied the problem, estimates that the state's criminal justice system mostly exists for one percent of the state's population - 30,000 to 35,000 people who keep rotating through the courts and prisons.

He and others conclude that the way to reduce this social and financial burden is to attack recidivism. One way to do that is with education. A 2001 study by the nonprofit Correctional Education Association of 3,200 inmates in three states found significantly lower rates of recidivism among those who had taken part in prison education programs.

In Maryland, one of the three states, recidivism dropped 20 percent. This saved $24 million, twice the state's investment in prison education.

Connecticut and many other states do reasonably well with basic, remedial and vocational education. The Department of Correction's Unified School District No.1, which runs the department's education programs, has an average of 3,300 of the state's 18,000 inmates attending at least one education program on any given day. The department is the largest grantor of General Education Development degrees in the state, at about 650 a year.

But where this state and most others are deficient is in college-level courses.

College courses used to be widely available in prisons across the country. But in 1994, Congress effectively killed federally financed college programs for prison inmates when it voted to eliminate Pell grants for federal and state prisons. The number of prison degree programs fell from 350 to about a dozen, The New York Times recently reported. Most of them are privately funded.

Connecticut hung on to its college program, which enabled inmates at a half-dozen facilities to take community college courses, until the state employee layoffs in 2002. Now all that is left is a small, federally funded youth offender program that allows some younger inmates to take classes. Last year, 214 students earned college credits in the program.

That's not enough. The Pell grant argument was specious: Inmates were only using one-tenth of one percent of the program's funds. Stopping the college program was really a "get tough on crime" measure. Because of such steps, the prison population increased in the 1990s across the country while crime went down.

We'd rather get smart on crime. College courses obviously aren't for every inmate, but they should be part of the mix. College helps all students grow, develop a moral outlook and prepare themselves for a productive life. If college classes can help inmates climb off the recidivism treadmill, why not offer them?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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