At a time when using public funding to provide a college education to prisoners can spark a heated debate, California is expanding its prisoner education programs with a new pilot project, in which four community colleges will provide on-site instruction to inmates.
Until now, the state’s prisoners have had to enroll in correspondence courses to complete a college degree or certificate — but that is changing. Senate Bill 1391, which passed last November and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, allows colleges to deliver on-site instruction in local prisons and to receive full-time equivalency funding from the state for these students.
The project will run until 2018, at which time the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will report on the program’s effectiveness to state lawmakers.
“The legislation really opened up a huge door of opportunity,” says B.J. Snowden, project director at the Chancellor’s Office.
Learning tools in prisons
The pilot project marks the latest expansion of California’s inmate education programs. Earlier this year, the state launched a new program that gives modified tablet computers to inmates enrolled in correspondence courses at community colleges.
Manufactured by a Nashville company called IDS, the tablets allow inmates to access their textbooks digitally. The California Community Colleges Board of Governors grants incarcerated students a tuition waiver through a financial aid program that pays the enrollment fees for economically disadvantaged students, but prisoners are responsible for buying their own textbooks. The e-reader program aims to make this more affordable for inmates.
The devices are sealed in protective cases that prevent disassembly, and Internet access is disabled. Inmates check out the devices at the start of a semester, with their textbooks preloaded. When the tablets are returned at the end of the semester, they are wiped clean and repurposed for another student.
Online courses, structured pathways
To further extend college opportunities to inmates, the state is exploring the feasibility of making online courses available.
“We do have plans down the road to open some classes up via secured Internet access,” says Brantley Choate, superintendent of the CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education. He says Palo Verde College already offers online courses to inmates at Ironwood State Prison through a secured server.
California state prisons currently hold between 120,000 and 130,000 inmates, Choate says. Of these, about 50,000 receive some form of education — and 7,500 are enrolled in college courses.
Coastline Community College has been actively growing its enrollment of incarcerated students since the 1990s, says Bob Nash, associate dean for distance learning and professional development. The college now enrolls nearly 4,000 inmates.
“We have structured pathways in which inmates can earn one of six [associate of arts] degrees,” Nash says. A business certificate also can be earned. These programs are offered only as correspondence courses, which Nash described as “not ideal.”
“We would love to be able to offer these programs online as well,” he says.
Educating inmates “comes with challenges, but we’re fully committed to these students and believe in the efficacy of what we’re doing,” Nash adds. “This not only reduces recidivism but also reduces prison violence.”
Programs pay for themselves
Paying for inmates to enroll in college courses can be controversial. In a comment posted to a recent news article on California’s inmate education programs, one person wrote: “I had to pay for every last penny of my education out of my own pocket with no handouts. Any money going towards this drivel should be cut off.”
Supporters of inmate education programs point to a 2013 RAND study that found participants were 43 percent less likely to return to prison if they’d received some form of workforce training or education — and every dollar invested in inmate education resulted in a savings of $5 in future prison costs.
“The public needs to realize that if we lower our recidivism rate by even 2 percent, these programs have paid for themselves,” Choate says. “There is a cost savings in keeping people out of prison, and there is a safety incentive as well.”
“You’re either paying to incarcerate them, or you’re paying to rehabilitate them,” Nash concludes. “So, let’s get them started on a better path.”