US prison courses collapse

September 29, 1995

The chain-gangs are breaking rocks in Alabama again, and in Arizona's desert landscape convicts are housed in tent cities. But dwindling sympathy for the estimated one million inmates of United States prisons has also wiped out their chances of earning a degree.

There were more than 350 higher education programmes in prisons last year, with nearly 40,000 inmates on two and four-year degree courses. Now there may be under a dozen programmes, said Boston University's director of prison education John Silva.

By law some states require prisons to offer the chance to complete high school, and vocational and technical training courses continue. But the 1994 crime bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton stopped federal grants for higher learning, and many state governments have followed suit.

Prisoners have proved an easy target for politicians promising to wage war on crime. Republican candidates on the presidential trail routinely conjure up images of prisons as comfortable "Holiday Inns" and promise to cut the weight-training and video libraries.

Prison education has been one casualty and that, say supporters, is a disaster. "Thousands of inmates who had something to do will now be sitting idle for the most part," said Mr Silva. "Anyone will tell you that those participating in liberal arts education are model prisoners."

The former warden of Louisiana's biggest prison, Angola, is among those citing figures that show education is "one of the few things that work" to keep prisoners from returning to crime. Recidivism rates at notorious Folsom Prison, for example, were 55 per cent in the general population and zero for college graduates.

The federal Pell grants cost only $1,150 per year and cutting them is not a saving, said Mr Silva. At Boston, of 210 prisoners who have won degrees and been released, only two have ended back in jail, he said. By contrast the costs of keeping them there are huge.

Four other colleges in Massachusetts have effectively ended their programmes, even as they cast about for foundations or charities to maintain them. Lou Butler, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, received a letter from one of her students lamenting the "abyss of life" in prison.

"When you lock people away for 15 and 20 years and expect them to return to society and resume some kind of normal life, it's pretty unrealistic," she said. "At least education gives them the tools to support themselves and put a roof over their heads."

Jim McDougal runs prison programmes at Ball State University in Indiana. Although one of the most conservative states in the Mid-West, it has retained state funding for its own prison teaching programmes. Prison courses provide stimulating extra work for faculty members, he said.

"Over a four year period we can still provide an education for less than two thirds of what one year in prison costs. We would never have to have everyone in the programme to be a success in order to make it financially beneficial to society."

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