Michigan DOC Rehabilitation Programs Emphasize Education, Reentry Support
by Matt Clarke
In 1998, Michigan passed a law requiring most prisoners without a high school diploma to earn a GED before being released on parole. That law has since been copied by other states, but most merely purport to give enhanced parole consideration to prisoners who earn a GED. Currently, about half of the 50,000 prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) do not have a high school diploma. On an average day, 10,000 to 11,000 prisoners are taking GED classes. Many more are on a waiting list.
The MDOC spends about $32 million (1.6%) of its $2 billion annual budget on academic and vocational education. In studies of released prisoners, the combination of earning a GED and receiving vocational training has been proven to lower recidivism rates.
“It’s one of the wisest ways we spend taxpayer money,” said MDOC spokesman John Cordell. “Better-educated individuals make better choices.”
National studies have shown that education is the only type of prison program that consistently reduces recidivism, with higher education positively correlated to a greater reduction in recidivism rates. Studies have also shown that prisoners who receive an education while incarcerated are more likely to maintain employment after their release.
Reducing recidivism is particularly important for Michigan, as the state has the 13th highest incarceration rate in the nation, expends 20% of its budget on corrections, and is one of only four states that spend more on prisons than on higher education for their citizens.
The MDOC’s education system employs 350 staff members, including teachers and administrators, who help prisoners turn their lives around in part by changing prisoners’ self-image and the perception of their families and friends.
“Before you graduated, you were the brother, the father, the grandson, the nephew that went to prison. Now you are the brother, the father, the grandson and nephew that got an education. That’s something in your life that you can hold on to and be proud of,” MDOC prison education manager Julie DeRose told graduating prisoners.
Cordell noted that education is only one part of the formula that leads to lower recidivism; a support network for newly-released prisoners is also important. This is why Michigan has implemented a program to assist released prisoners, the Michigan Prison ReEntry Initiative (MPRI), which provides both pre-release services and post-release support.
The MPRI, a public/private partnership that began in 2005, received matching funds from the JEHT Foundation, which was recently forced to shut down [see related article in this issue of PLN]. Nevertheless, the state has reached out to find new funding sources. “It’s tough, but it’s not going away,” stated MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan. The legislature has proposed $34.4 million in MPRI funding for fiscal year 2009-2010.
The only question is whether that is enough, and not just in monetary terms. If society continues to measure prisoners by their most ignoble acts – a measure it does not apply to itself – then education and reentry programs alone are insufficient. In these days of instantaneous background checks, education will only benefit former prisoners if employers, landlords and other members of the public are willing to give them a chance to show they have changed for the better.
In order for prison education programs and reentry initiatives like MPRI to succeed, there must be an ebb in the rising tide of demonizing current and former prisoners, which means a sea change in the way the public – as well as politicians and prison officials – view our nation’s criminal justice policies and priorities.
Sources: Detroit News, www.michpri.com, MPRI 2008 Progress Report, Detroit Free Press
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