Getting Real About Prison Education Cuts

Buster Keaton Jail.jpg
School's out -- forever?
California has the highest inmate recidivism rate in the country: 70 percent. Now, as a result of a $250 million budget cut in prison education programs, the state is gearing up to liquidate programs, slash in-class hours, fire more than 800 of the state's 1,200 prison teachers, and, in their place, train long-term offenders as one-on-one peer tutors.

A few of the cuts are not worth crying over: San Quentin is losing its vocational print shop, which had been training the inmates in skills that had become obsolete in the age of the LaserJet.

But the overall impact on the inmate population will be, in the polite phrasing of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, "significant."

"You tell me, when you went to college or school, how valuable was it to have a teacher in front of you?" San Quentin public information officer Lieutenant Sam Robinson told SF Weekly last month.

There's been plenty of outrage about the pending layoffs, which have been in the works since September.

In the Chronicle Tuesday and Wednesday, Democratic candidates for state attorney general Kamala Harris and Ted Lieu each denounced the cuts and said scrapping educational programs for inmates would increase the state's recidivism rates even further, and end up costing taxpayers more in the end.

Service Employees International Union, which represents the state's prison teachers, is suing the state over the layoffs.

In an interview with SF Weekly earlier this month, CDCR's Elizabeth Siggins said the state is trying to focus the remaining education resources on the inmates most likely to re-offend.This means educational programs for female inmates are facing the biggest cuts, since women have a lower risk of recidivism.

Right now, the wait list for prison educational programs is first-come, first-serve, Siggins said. After the layoffs, inmates will get priority on the wait-list depending on how they scored on tests assessing their risk level and their need, as well as how much time is left before they're released.

To stretch classroom hours to cover more inmates, some will only go to class part-time, and will complete the rest of their work independently in their cells or in the prison library. Volunteers and inmate peer tutors will also be used to fill the gaps.

"These changes are going to help us be more effective,"  Siggins said.

Don Cronk, who served more than 25 years in San Quentin for murder, had a different opinion.

"Face it, most of us go in there because we're dysfunctional. We didn't have good study habits or work ethic or whatever. It was the example of the teachers or the instructors, the interaction, that prodded us to strive and go on and get through it," Cronk told SF Weekly.

Prison education programs played a crucial role in Cronk's successful attempt to prove to the parole board that he had  been rehabilitated, a story chronicled in detail last month on This American Life.

"It's changed my entire life," he said. "Without it, I doubt I would be released, and I doubt I would be in the position I'm in."

The teacher layoffs were supposed to go into effect at the end of January, but they were postponed a month as the state continues to negotiate with SEIU.

It doesn't help that teachers are being laid off according to seniority, not according to how effective they are, said Jody Lewen, executive director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin, an independently-funded non-profit that will not be affected by the cuts.

"People who have had direct exposure to the quality of the education inside are aware that there have been terrible problems with quality control," Lewen told SF Weekly.

"California prisons are like one massive failing urban education system. It's always been public school in hell. There's no oversight. There's no accountability."  

With the cuts, she said, "It's like a really dilapidated house burning to the ground."
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