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Utah: Prisoners’ Education Should be Cheaper, More Efficient, Report Says

Secondary education for Utah prisoners are wasting tax dollars and, more importantly, wasting educational resources, according to an August 2012 report by the state’s Legislative Auditor General.

Utah lawmakers wanted to know how efficient and effective are high school education programs offered in the state’s prisons and jails, which help offenders earn a diploma or G.E.D., or learn English as a second language.

Auditor General John Schaff reported that Utah’s State Office of Education (USOE), with a $5.4 million budget in 2011, educated 5,268 prisoners at 23 jails and both state prisons. It cost more to teach prisoners ($512 per student) than to educate adult students on the outside ($346 per student). One reason, according to the report, is that some prisoners take hundreds of class “contact” hours without graduating, while others who graduate continue to attend classes but only sit around and do nothing, consuming resources that could be helping other prisoners.

“Programs should not be designed to take longer, simply because an inmate has more time available,” the report said. The Auditor General also noted that “[b]y spending more on inmates, fewer funds are available for the traditional adult education program” for non-incarcerated students.

Utah’s jails, according to the report, are more efficient at achieving educational outcomes than state prisons. Jail programs averaged 26 hours per student to advance an academic level or reach graduation, while prison programs averaged 55 hours per student – twice as long, resulting in twice the cost.

Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC) officials argued that state prisoners “are at a lower functioning level than inmates in jail programs when they enter the program, and therefore require more educational services.”

However, the Auditor General’s report refuted that claim, finding that in 2011, 85% of prisoners in both jails and state prisons “entered with an educational functioning level below a ninth-grade level.”

UDOC officials further argued that prisoner education programs are not only about education but also address safety and security issues, as they help to “manage the incarcerated population by keeping inmates engaged and diverting problem behavior.”

The report recommended that the USOE establish guidelines for a reasonable number of “contact” hours for students to achieve certain educational outcomes, and to limit classroom time used by prisoners who have graduated. The Auditor General also recommended that the USOE and UDOC evaluate post-release employment benefits that result from providing education programs to prisoners, and give educational priority to prisoners who are scheduled to be released within five years.

Sources: “A Performance Audit of Inmate High School Education,” Utah Auditor General, No. 2012-11 (August 2012); Salt Lake Tribune

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