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"Specter" Funds for Prisoner Education Cut Endangering Prison College Programs

Some prison systems have been providing a college education to prisoners financed, at least in part, by federal funding named after correctional education advocate Arlen Specter, a former U.S. senator. But Congress didn't renew the "Specter" funds for 2011 and 2012 and now prison education officials are scrambling to come up with alternative funding--or cut classes.

There are good reasons to support college education for prisoners. Minnesota statistics show that only about 15% of newly-arriving prisoners have taken any college classes. Numerous studies have linked increased education to decreased recidivism. Nonetheless, prison officials are skeptical about future federal funding for prison college classes.

"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 (CEA). "We're cutting our own throats."

The Minnesota prison system had been receiving around $150,000 a year in "Specter" funds. They used this to partner with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities which provided teachers and class materials to prisoners. The partnership didn't dissolve in 2011 when the funding was cut because the prison system had some surplus from previous years. But the surplus will be gone by 2013 and the prison system doesn't know where it will get funding from.

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

The prison system's spokeswoman, Sarah Berg, said the system was looking for alternative funding. So are prison systems around the country. About a third of the country's prisons offer college education course of some kind.

West Virginia will be cutting classes in half or worse, according to Fran Warsing, its superintendent of the Office of Institutional Education Programs.

"There's no money. They did away with Pell grants," said Warsing, "and now they've done away with this."

Prior to 1994, prisoners were eligible to receive federal Pell Grants to pay for their college tuition. That funding was eliminated in a spate of "tough on crime" posturing in Congress.

Don Kiffin, who is in charge of education at a prison in Oklahoma and is president of the CEA said that he is down to his last semester of funds after his prison lost the $7,000 to $10,000 it received each year in 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," said Kiffin. "I have to pick, choose and refuse."

"You can basically kiss the post-secondary programs goodbye," said Steurer referring to the Maryland prison system were he worked before retiring.

Steurer said that short-sighted politicians don't look at the long-term benefits of prisoner education such as having fewer prisoners in prison due to reduced recidivism or having former prisoners become more productive, tax-paying citizens. That, of course, is the problem with most prison policies--they focus on short-term goals with no long-term strategy.

Source: The Minnesota Daily

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