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Prison Education Programs Threatened

Prison Education Programs Threatened


by Matt Clarke


Corrections officials across the country fear that two recent developments will drastically limit educational opportunities for prisoners – a scenario that research indicates could lead to higher recidivism rates.

First, Congress failed to renew federal funding in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for a grant program that helps finance higher education courses for prisoners. The grants, known as Specter funds – named after correctional education advocate and late-U.S. Senator Arlen Specter – provided money to state prison systems that helped underwrite a portion of the cost of post-secondary programs for prisoners.

The second development concerns significant changes in the GED program that allows people to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. Starting on January 1, 2014, the test was realigned to match Common Core State Standards, and the old pencil-and-paper exams were eliminated in favor of a computer-based test. Most prisons and jails that offer GED classes will be affected by the change.


Prison Education Research


The elimination of Specter funds compounds the woes of prison education programs that are already suffering from cuts imposed by states facing budget shortfalls. A study conducted by the non-profit RAND Corporation on behalf of the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance found that states reduced funding for prison education programs by an average of 6% between fiscal years 2009 and 2012. The study reported that states with large prison populations cut prison education funding by 10%, on average, while states with medium-sized populations slashed education budgets by an average of 20%.

The February 2014 RAND report, “How Effective is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here?,” found that academic courses were hardest hit by the state funding cuts.

“There has been a dramatic contraction of the prison education system, particularly those programs focused on academic instruction versus vocational training,” said Lois Davis, a RAND senior policy researcher and the study’s lead author. “There are now fewer teachers, fewer course offerings and fewer students enrolled in academic education programs,” she remarked in a statement released along with the report.

Further, the study found that on average, every dollar spent on prison education programs results in a savings of four to five dollars in the cost of re-incarcerating prisoners within the three years following their release, due to lower recidivism rates.

“We need to weigh the short-term need to reduce budgets with the long-term consequence of trimming programs that help keep people from returning to prison after they have paid their debt to society,” Davis said.

The RAND report integrated a 2013 meta-analysis of more than 30 years of previous research which concluded that “inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43% lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not.” The positive impact of prison-based education programs on recidivism rates has long been known. [See: PLN, March 2012, p.10].

“These findings reinforce the need to become smarter on crime by expanding proven strategies for keeping our communities safe, and ensuring that those who have paid their debts to society have the chance to become productive citizens,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said when the meta-analysis findings were released in August 2013.

“Correctional education programs provide incarcerated individuals with the skills and knowledge essential to their futures,” added U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Investing in these education programs helps released prisoners get back on their feet – and stay on their feet – when they return to communities across the country.”

Further, the RAND report determined the odds of an offender finding employment after release from prison was 13% higher for those who participated in academic or vocational programs compared to those who did not. Prisoners who received vocational training were 28% more likely to obtain post-release employment.

Despite the numerous studies that have linked increased educational opportunities to lower recidivism rates, state officials are skeptical about future federal funding for post-secondary prison education programs – which was largely gutted after such programs were barred from receiving federal Pell grants under President Clinton in 1994. [See: PLN, Jan. 1998, p.4; Dec. 1994, p.7]. As a result of the loss of Pell grants, college programs for prisoners dropped from approximately 350 nationwide to around a dozen, according to The New York Times.


Loss of Specter Funds


The discontinuation of federal Specter funds starting in 2011 has prison education officials nationwide scrambling to find alternative funding sources.

“I’m not a pessimistic person, but I don’t see this one coming back any time soon,” said Stephen Steurer, executive director of the National Correctional Education Association (NCEA), in reference to the end of Specter funds. “We’re cutting our own throats,” he added.

Specter funds had been provided through the Grants to States for Workplace and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Individuals, 20 U.S.C. § 1151.

For example, Minnesota’s prison system received around $150,000 per year in Specter funds; the money was used to partner with state colleges and universities, which provided teachers and class materials. When the funding was cut in 2011, the partnership did not dissolve because the state prison system had a surplus from previous years, but that was only temporary. Minnesota prison officials have admitted they don’t know where they will secure new funding, but vowed to continue looking.

“It’s an important program, and we’re going to do what we can to try and keep it continuing,” insisted George Kimball, the prison system’s director for adult education.

Other state corrections officials have found themselves in a similar position; about a third of the nation’s prisons offer post-secondary education programs of some type.

West Virginia will be cutting classes by half or worse, according to Fran Warsing, superintendent of the state’s Office of Institutional Education Programs.

“There’s no money,” complained Warsing. “They did away with Pell grants, and now they’ve done away with this.”

In Florida, Specter funds were used to support a number of prison vocational programs, including web design courses at the Lawtey Correctional Institution and Hernando Correctional Institution; a culinary arts program at the Madison Correctional Institution; and a landscape irrigation course at the Suwannee Correctional Institution.

NCEA President Don Kiffin, who is in charge of education at a prison in Oklahoma, said his institution was down to its last semester of funding after losing $7,000 to $10,000 in annual Specter funds.

“A lot of people coming to me that want to go to school [are] wondering why I can’t give them money to go,” Kiffin stated. “I have to pick, choose and refuse.”

“You can basically kiss the post-secondary programs goodbye,” remarked NCEA director Steurer, referring to the Maryland prison system where he worked before retiring.

Steurer said short-sighted politicians don’t look at the long-term benefits of prisoner education, such as lower prison populations due to reduced recidivism or having more former prisoners become productive, tax-paying citizens.

Legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 803, known as the SKILLS Act, repeals the statute that authorizes Specter funds and replaces it with a different federal funding initiative for prison education programs. H.R. 803 passed in the House in March 2013; a companion bill in the Senate, S.B. 1911, was introduced in January 2014 and has been referred to a committee.


Changes in GED Testing


Meanwhile, the RAND study predicted that recent changes to GED testing will pose another threat to prison education programs. The report warned that the realignment of the test to Common Core State Standards and the switch to a computer-based exam could have a negative impact on prisoners trying to earn their GEDs.

“These two changes have important implications for correctional administrators and educators in terms of preparing for and implementing the new test,” RAND stated. “Educators will need to be prepared to teach the [new standards] and prepare students for a more rigorous GED test that will require students to demonstrate high-level thinking skills and exhibit deeper levels of knowledge in four subject areas.”

The report said the switch to a computer-based test will make the exam even more difficult for prisoners in programs that generally have limited technology resources. It “will require educators to prepare students to have a level of computer literacy and skills necessary to successfully navigate the test,” which in turn has “implications when it comes to agency budgets and professional development needs of educators and present[s] a number of logistical concerns when it comes to preparing to implement computer-based testing.”

According to RAND, 31 states plan to use the new, more difficult GED exams. A survey of correctional education directors in those states found that 52% believe the new tests will have a negative impact on the number of prisoners who earn GEDs. Further, 68% indicated that as a result, they anticipate a decline in the number of prisoners participating in GED programs.

The RAND report also found that 42% of state prison education officials believe it will take more time for prisoners to prepare for the redesigned tests, and 45% said they expect fewer prisoners will be adequately prepared.

Facilities that do not currently have computers to provide the new tests can request a waiver to continue using paper exams on a temporary basis. According to the GED Testing Service, “Prisons not able to offer computer-based testing will continue to offer the 2002 Series GED Test on paper for a limited approved amount of time.”

Over 75% of the states responding to the RAND survey reported that the increased cost of implementing computer-based GED testing was a concern. The new GED exams will cost around $120 each, which, according to USA Today, is a significant increase from the $70 average cost for paper tests. In some jurisdictions the increase may be passed along to students in whole or part, though GED testing costs are sometimes subsidized by public agencies.

As noted in the RAND report, the new GED exam comes on the heels of a growing trend by states to slash funding for prisoner education. In Oregon, for example, Department of Corrections spokesman Betty Bernt said the state cut roughly $100,000 from the department’s Adult Basic Skills Development program in the four years between 2009 and 2013. The budget cuts led to a nearly 13% drop in the number of prisoners participating in the program.

Due to the cost increase of the new GED exam, some correctional facilities are switching to an alternative, less expensive high school equivalency test known as HiSET.


A Case Study: Prison Education in New York


In New York, a senior official with the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters at a March 31, 2014 briefing that non-profit organizations and foundations had expressed interest in financing the governor’s plan to expand college classes at 10 state prisons.

The announcement signaled the revival of a program that Cuomo unveiled in February 2014, which was quickly scuttled after New York state lawmakers voiced fierce opposition to using taxpayer dollars to fund college courses for prisoners.

Cuomo first detailed the proposal in a speech to the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. The governor said New York spends about $60,000 per prisoner – what he called “more money than it takes to send a person to Harvard for a year” – and that paying for one year of college education for the same prisoner would cost about $5,000.

“We’re imprisoning, we’re isolating, but we’re not rehabilitating the way we should,” Governor Cuomo said at the time.

The plan drew immediate praise from the Caucus. “A higher level of education will support these men and women in moving forward with their lives, as opposed to returning to criminal activity and prison,” stated Caucus chairman and state Assemblyman Karim Camara.

The deal-breaker for lawmakers, however, was the plan to use taxpayer money to fund the initiative. Republican state Assemblyman Joe Borelli said the issue was not the proposal itself but rather that the plan favored one group of people – prisoners – over another.

“The problem with the program is not the idea of rehabilitation for convicted felons,” said Borelli. “The problem is the fundamental inequity of the proposal.... How can we provide a free education for people who have made the wrong choices in life, while we let the people who made good choices struggle?”

Borelli noted that college students in New York typically incur an average of $25,537 in student loans.

Governor Cuomo had touted the plan as a way to reduce future prison spending. State data shows that New York’s recidivism rate is approximately 40%. By comparison, since 1999 the rate of re-incarceration dropped to only 4% for prisoners who participated in an existing post-secondary education program sponsored by Bard College at six medium- and maximum-security New York state prisons. As of 2013, more than 250 prisoners have obtained degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative.

“I understand the sentiment” against using public funds to pay for colleges classes for prisoners, the governor conceded at a news conference to mark the passage of the new state budget. “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it, and I understand the appearance of it.”

Currently, higher education programs are offered at 22 New York state prisons; most are funded with private money. For example, the Prison-to-College Pipeline, a project of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, began offering classes at the Otisville Correctional Facility in 2011. Other college programs are provided through Bard and Cornell University.

Governor Cuomo’s proposed initiative would have expanded existing programs so more prisoners could participate in college courses and earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

Sources: Minnesota Daily, Wall Street Journal, Staten Island Advance,, www,, Associated Press, The New York Times,,,,,,,, USA Today, “How Effective is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here?” RAND Corporation (Feb. 2014)


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