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Indiana Cuts Prison College Courses

by Matt Clarke

After the Indiana General Assembly passed a budget for FY 2012-2013 that eliminated $9 million in financial aid for college programs for prisoners, the Indiana Department of Correction (DOC) is shifting such programs away from liberal arts studies and four-year degrees, and instead focusing on vocational courses.

Under the new plan, the DOC will spend around $2 million on post-secondary education programs but will emphasize classes leading to a work skills certificate or a two-year associate degree in a limited number of fields that reflect the specific needs of Indiana employers.

The DOC canceled contracts with six colleges, including Ball State, Grace College and Indiana State University. It plans to have one university provide all of the DOC’s vocational classes. This change, combined with the elimination of liberal arts curriculums, will reduce the number of higher education offerings available to Indiana’s 28,000 state prisoners.

In 2010 there were 1,760 prisoners enrolled in courses leading to a degree in the DOC’s Corrections Education Pro-gram, including 676 enrolled in four-year bachelor’s degree studies – one of the largest higher education programs for prisoners in the nation.

According to Steven J. Steuer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, those prisoners will have a reduced chance of returning to prison after their release. He noted, as repeatedly reported in PLN, that prisoners who complete college courses have much lower recidivism rates.

Steuer believes the elimination of liberal arts education is short-sighted. “Why don’t they just come out and say that they are cutting money because they don’t want to give anything to offenders or that they have different priorities?” he asked.

“All of our educational programs must focus on one endpoint: employment,” said John Nally, the DOC’s director of education. “Most bachelor degrees are in liberal studies or general studies. We suspect that those nonspecific degrees are not a market signal for employability. An unemployed ex-offender is 2.1 times more likely to recidivate than an employed offender. Realistically, released offenders need to find a job with sustainable wages and acceptable benefits.”

This, Nally believes, is best accomplished with work skills courses, vocational certificates and associate degrees in fields such as HVAC, welding and automotive design and repair. “The recidivism (re-arrest) rate for associate degree holders with employment is 54 percent less than the recidivism rate for the general prison population,” he noted.

Rhiannon Williams, executive director of Public Advocates in Community re-Entry, applauded the DOC’s shift in priorities for higher education for prisoners.

“You have to have something to sell an employer,” said Williams. “A certificate or a degree can be extremely important. We have had some clients who come to us with a bachelor’s degree in something and they find out that it can’t be put to use. Any degree should cater to our market. We want them to be working, because if they are working they are less likely to become a repeat offender.”

Indiana State University English professor Laura Bates has taught prisoners for over two decades and designed the university’s Bachelor of Arts program for prisoners. She believes a liberal arts education has great value and that employers appreciate the communications skills taught in liberal arts courses such as English, literature and history.

“After working with prisoners throughout the state of Indiana for more than 25 years, I feel strongly that what they need most is a humanizing education,” said Bates, who disagrees with the cuts to the DOC’s college program. “This is a tragic loss for prisoners, in favor of a more narrow vocational education.”

According to a May 2011 news report, Indiana was cutting off Frank O’Bannon Grants to incarcerated students, which were used to fund higher education programs in the DOC. Prisoners close to completing degree programs will be allowed to finish.

“The State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana (SSACI) is no longer funding the prison education program, which will now be funded through the Department of Correction as a result of recent legislation,” said Tony Proudfoot, a spokesman for Ball State University.

Of course, given the lip service that is generally paid to higher education for prisoners, it’s surprising that any college programs are still being offered by the Indiana DOC – or by other state prison systems for that matter.


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