When state legislators slashed education funding this session, the Windham School District’s (WSD) annual budget decreased from $130.6 million to $95 million. WSD, which provides education to prisoners in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, lost one-fourth of its budget. According to district spokeswoman Bambi Kiser, 16,750 fewer prisoners will have access to education as a result of these dramatic cuts.
Considering that research suggests that participation in prison education programs reduces the likelihood that individuals will return to prison after release, these cuts to prison education are especially concerning. The Amarillo Globe-News article below, which details the district’s budget cuts, gives a great overview of the issue. MW
By AZIZA MUSA
Ex-convict Jorge Renaud discovered philosophy and psychology in classes taught behind the razor-wire fences and cinder-block walls of Texas prisons.
It changed his life.
Renaud’s family traveled constantly when he was a child, following the crops to such southwestern farming hubs as Dimmitt and Cactus, he said. At 17, he joined the U.S. Army and spent three years in the service. When he got out in 1977, Renaud turned to making quick money from quick crimes, after he committed burglary of a habitation. It landed him in the state penitentiary.
“Why does anybody commit a crime? Stupidity, ignorance, irresponsibility,” he said. “I thought I needed material possessions.”
After he was released in 1980, he committed two aggravated robberies within the next decade and went back to prison.
That’s when Renaud turned to post-secondary education, with help from the prison education system. He said the classes helped him find his way out of the prison stint.
“Prison has to offer a hope, a rope to those who are drowning,” he said. “To some people, it’s religion. But even then, you will want to have some critical thinking skills. Where are you going to get that?”
There are fewer educational opportunities for Texas prison inmates following state lawmakers’ decision to slash the Windham School District’s budget by more than a fourth, from $130.6 million for the 2010-11 academic year to $95 million in 2011-12, district spokeswoman Bambi Kiser said.
More than 77,500 prisoners enrolled in classes last year. Established in 1969, Windham is funded by the Texas Education Agency and is overseen by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
She said the district predicted 16,750 fewer offenders will be able to take classes for the 2011-12 school year.
District officials made the most cuts to schools with student enrollments averaging 40 or older because studies have shown that educational programs are more likely to reduce recidivism for younger offenders, Kiser said.
Texas Panhandle prisons house about 11,250 inmates, and more than half were taking classes last year, according to the Department of Criminal Justice and Windham documents. Of the eight regional units, nearly half have student enrollments averaging 40 or older.
All of those prison school budgets took significant cuts — the most at the Jordan Unit in Pampa, which was reduced by nearly $292,000, Kiser said.
The cuts amounted to a streamlined administration, where some principals will supervise more than one school and travel to other campuses about once a week, Kiser said. The budget reduction also means a loss of 271 full-time employees — 22 in the Texas Panhandle units, she said.
On top of the layoffs, the district’s consumable supplies budget was slashed by about half. These items include pencils, paper and toner cartridges, among other school supplies.
The Criminal Justice Department denied requests to sit in classes or talk to current prison students about the educational programs.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who served as the vice chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee from 2004 to 2010, said all state departments had to trim their budgets.
“Public education is very important in the prison system because it does help when it comes to recidivism,” Seliger said. “But Windham has gotten very expensive per completion.”
Of all the school district’s students, nearly 7 percent — or 5,287 prisoners — obtained a General Education Development certificate last year, according to Windham documents. Nearly 340 offenders, or 5 percent of students, in the Panhandle prisons received a GED, district documents state.
“It doesn’t mean we’ve turned our backs on prisoner education,” Seliger said. “We just need to do it as effectively and economically as possible.”
Lawmakers had to prioritize during the last legislative session, said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit organization that researches and analyzes criminal justice policies. But, she argued, the district will not increase the number of students obtaining GED diplomas by making it unavailable. The district will only get worse results that way, she said.
Statewide budget cuts dealt the prison education system another blow. The district did not renew seven college contracts, Kiser said. The higher education agencies offered vocational training and post-
secondary education for the prisoners.
Amarillo College, which provided diesel mechanics and data processing courses, served nearly 50 students a year at the Clements and Neal units, Kiser said. But AC and Clarendon College were among those that did not receive a renewed contract, she said.
The only college that will now serve the region’s prisons is Western Texas College, based in Snyder, she said.
Lawmakers also gutted state reimbursable funds — assistance money that prisoners can use for continuing education — by about 42 percent, Kiser said. The funds are similar to student loans in that offenders must pay back what they borrow, and that is returned to the state, she said.
Renaud, 55, who is slated to receive a master’s of science in social work in May 2012, said most offenders cannot afford continuing education without aid, and the reductions do not bode well for prison recidivism rates.
“Education helps you better relate to people. It gives you the discipline and communication skills to keep a job,” he said. “Education can give you tools to deal with a moral situation.”
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said there is a need for prisoner education, but officials should look at a different model.
“Windham has become too top-heavy,” he said. “It has outlived its usefulness.”
Whitmire said the Criminal Justice Department could do away with administrative costs by outsourcing teaching to area junior colleges.
Yanez-Correa said the department also needs to maintain prisoner education by exploring innovative ways to get better outcomes.
The coalition is currently surveying all prisoners who have written to the organization and their families on what has helped them, she said. A lot of them have said the Windham School District has made a positive influence on them, she said.
“If they don’t have that, what is it that they have?”
Bottom line: It’s a win-win situation to provide a prisoner with education, she said.
She said educating prisoners is a better return for taxpayers because of its negative correlation with recidivism.
“You’re either paying now or paying later,” she said.