Faced with a $23 billion biennial state budget deficit, the Texas legislature has radically cut education programs in state prisons. Such short-term savings will undoubtedly result in long-term expenses, as education has been proven to reduce recidivism.
Jorge Renaud, 55, is an example of a prison education success story. On the path to becoming a career criminal, he was first incarcerated for burglary of a habitation and later for a pair of aggravated robberies.
During his second stint in prison, Renaud began taking college courses with financial assistance from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) education system. The post-secondary classes helped him break the cycle of prison, release and re-incarceration.
“Why does anybody commit a crime? Stupidity, ignorance, irresponsibility. I thought I needed material possessions,” Renaud stated. But the college-level education he received while in prison helped him stop his self-destructive behavior.
Despite positive outcomes like Renaud’s, the Texas legislature slashed the 2011-2012 budget for the Windham School District to $95 million – a more than 25 percent cut from the district’s 2010-2011 budget, according to spokes-woman Bambi Kiser. She predicted the budget cuts will cause the 77,500 incarcerated students taking Windham GED and vocational classes to drop by about 16,750.
The Windham School District was created in 1969 to administer educational programs in Texas prisons. It is funded by the Texas Education Agency but overseen by the TDCJ.
The budget cuts are forcing Windham to close some schools – primarily those with students averaging 40 years or older whose recidivism rates are less likely to be affected by education than those of younger prisoners. Other cost-cutting measures include reducing school administration expenses by sharing employees such as principals between various prisons, and laying off 271 full-time staff members. The budget for consumables, such as paper, toner cartridges and other school supplies, was reduced by half.
“Public education is important in the prison system because it does help when it comes to recidivism. But Windham has gotten very expensive per [student] completion,” said State Senator Kel Seliger, vice chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “It doesn’t mean we’ve turned our backs on prisoner education. We just need to do it as effectively and economically as possible.”
Only around 7 percent of prisoners enrolled in Windham classes obtained a GED in 2010, leading some lawmakers to question the cost effectiveness of prison education programs. “It’s really outrageous,” remarked state Senator John Whitmire.
Higher education classes in Texas prisons also have been reduced due to the budget crunch. Windham did not renew contracts it had with seven colleges for both academic and vocational training courses. A program in which students can defer tuition payments until after they are released was reduced by 42%.
“Despite all changes, [Windham] remains committed to providing the best possible programming with allocated funding,” Kiser stated.
Although prison education programs have been proven to reduce recidivism by instilling self-discipline in prisoners and teaching them the skills they need to obtain and keep jobs once they return to the community, Texas has clearly decided to pawn these future benefits for short-term budgetary gains.
The Texas prison system is cutting costs in other ways, too, including reducing meals to twice daily on weekends [see: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.28], and imposing a $100 annual co-pay on prisoners who request medical care [see: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.42].
Sources: Amarillo Globe-News, Texas Tribune, Dallas Morning News
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