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New Jersey Auditor: Life Skills Academy Prison Contract Improperly Monitored

by Matthew T. Clarke

A report by the New Jersey State Auditor released in July 2005, finds that the $1.5 million Life Skills Academy (LSA) contract was not properly monitored by prison system officials. The problems included prisoners who had graduated from the program previously and were facilitating the program being listed as new graduates, ineffective tracking of prisoner attendance and program attendees being graduated with only 757 of the required hours.

Life Skills Academy, Inc. of Trenton, New Jersey has an unusual past and even more unusual financing. It is supposed to teach troubled prisoners decision-making skills. The eight subjects taught in its classes include: ?effective communication,? ?goal setting,? ?emotional control.? It has eight employees and twenty coordinators.

LSA began life in 1994 as the New Jersey chapter of Amer-I-can, a prisoner rehabilitation program founded by football star Jim Brown. Brown?s program started in the late 1980?s and eventually included 11 state chapters. Brown persuaded then Assembly Speaker Garabed Haytaian to secure the New Jersey chapter $1.5 million in funding and allow Trenton street activist Shahid Watson to run the chapter.

Later in 1994, when Haytaian--who was running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination--came under criticism for refusing to condemn racially-disparaging remarks made by a controversial radio personality, Watson adamantly defended him. At a later campaign event, Watson cheered Haytaian. Later, Haytaian made a campaign appearance at the Trenton offices of Amer-I-can.

In 2000, Watson, who had changed his name to Emmanuel ben Avraham, had a falling out with Brown, who had been sentenced to six months in jail for failing to attend counseling following a domestic violence incident. He then changed the name of Amer-I-can?s New Jersey chapter to Life Skills Academy.

What drew the State Auditor?s attention and caused the audit of this small contract was the fact that it was a dedicated line item in the state?s $30.3 billion budget. Normally, a vendor is contracted by officials at a state agency following the acceptance of bids after the Legislature appropriates money to the agency for the work. The line item specified both the amount and the vendor--LSA. This made it stand out.

The State Auditor found that LSA. was essentially allowed to monitor its own contract compliance and success, then bill the state without any kind of supervision. The self-reported items included attendance, eligibility of graduates and curriculum hours completed. The prison system promised to correct these shortcomings and noted that it was unable to determine the effectiveness of the program because it could not be isolated from the effects of the other programs offered by the prison system.

Republican legislators have placed LSA on a list of wasteful government spending for the past two years and requested its elimination from the budget to no avail. It survived in the latest budget despite months of bitter fighting among legislators over tax increases and other programs. The program was once cut from a budget proposed by former Governor James E. McGreevey, but the program and the requirement to hire LSA were restored by the Legislature. The program is unique in its history, funding and invulnerability.


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