Saturday, January 9, 2010

Saving the University of California through prison education

I am hoping to use this blog entry not only to raise awareness about the benefits of prison education, but also to propose a potentially feasible plan to save US tax payers billions of dollars. Please share this information with your family and friends if you believe it to be important. Alternatively, please post comments both positive and negative, all input is appreciated.

The University of California is the world’s premiere public university system. This elite status is in grave danger due to the significant budget deficit facing the State of California. Between 2008 and 2010, state funding to the University will be reduced by a total of 20% ($813 million dollars). Consequently, students face a 32% increase in fees by the summer of 2010, an increase in class size, a decrease in enrollment acceptance, and fewer areas of study from which to choose.

Prisons and the University compete for the same pool of the state’s discretionary funds, hence the California Department of Corrections is also in a serious funding crisis due to a growing prison population. The State of California currently houses 172,000 inmates in 100,000 spaces, an increase in inmate numbers of 617% since 1980. Further, taxpayers spend $47,000 per year per inmate and $10,000 to prosecute felony offenders.

California has a 70% rate of recidivism/reincarceration, the highest in the nation. Reducing the rate of recidivism by 5% would save the State of California approximately $404 million dollars, an amount equal to half the reductions facing the University of California. In order to achieve two mutually desirable outcomes: a reduction in recidivism and the restoration of funding to the University, I propose we establish educational partnerships between the University and prisons. Countless studies have independently established that education is the single most effective method for reducing recidivism. In a report sent to Congress, the National Institute of Justice stated that, “education is far more effective at reducing recidivism than boot camps, shock incarceration, or vocational training.” (Karpowitz and Kenner, 1995). A tri-state study that monitored the rate of re-incarceration of 3600 prisoners found that inmates receiving any education while imprisoned reduced reincarceration by 29% (Steurer et al., 1997). A study completed in 2002 in Texas demonstrated that up to eight years post-release, recidivism decreased by from 43% to 27.2% for inmates who earned an associate’s degree. Recidivism was further reduced to 7.8% for inmates who obtained a bachelor’s degree (State of Texas, Windom School District, 2002). Strikingly, in another study, which followed inmates for two years post-parole, 0% of inmates returned to incarceration if they attained a master’s degree (Tracy et al., 1994). Similar results were obtained in studies completed in Alabama, Indiana, New York and Wisconsin.

Prison education programs became rare after 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was enacted. This legislation prevented incarcerated persons from receiving Pell Grant funding, effectively closing 350 prison education programs. In order to minimize the devastating effects of this bill on California, a professor from UC Davis in collaboration with Patten College and prison instructors, founded a volunteer, non-profit college program at San Quentin in 1996. The program has evolved into the non-profit Prison University Project (PUP), in which approximately 70 graduate-level and above volunteer instructors, teaching assistants, tutors, and interns from Bay Area universities offer twelve academically-certified classes per semester, ranging from rigorous English- and math-preparatory instruction to courses in social science, humanities and the sciences. Approximately 200 men enroll each semester. To date, 68 inmates have earned associate degrees, while many more who were released prior to graduation continue their education at community colleges and universities.

Due to the current budget crisis, the California Department of Corrections has been forced to implement “population reassignment,” which means that approximately one-third of the students who are enrolled in PUP may be or have already been transferred to another prison where the program is not available. PUP at San Quentin is the only program of its kind in California and thus these inmates, if transferred, will no longer have access to education/rehabilitation. One transferee recently wrote to the director of PUP, “Sure there is a lot more freedom to move around and there are not bars and concrete, but I’d rather be in a dungeon with access to education than on a sunny prison yard with nothing to do but exercise…If I had to define what rehabilitation in prison is, it would be the Prison University Project…” (PUP newsletter Nov 2009 Vol 4, No.3). PUP is a highly successful program and through careful planning and support could be used as a model to establish educational programs at all 35 state prisons.

The primary goal of this proposal is to find the funding that would maintain the status of the University of California as the nation’s foremost public University system. Without reducing recidivism, approximately 119,000 prisoners will return to incarceration, taxpayers will continue to spend over $8.5 billion dollars on corrections and the University will have to compromise its reputation of excellence. Now is the time to support a proven program with both noble and practical goals: saving the University of California and giving hope to men who are committed to turning their lives for the better.
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