Category: education

Budget cuts affect access to prison education in Texas

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

Prison education struggles amid cuts


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?” (more…)

Wisdom and the public prosecutor

Mark Osler

By Mark Osler

Many of the problems dealt with by Friends of Justice are created by prosecutors behaving badly.  Part of my own vocation is to train prosecutors to act from principle in a public way, to avoid some of these tragedies before they happen.  This paper sets out a few of my thoughts on training future prosecutors so that they may show true wisdom in solving problems, rather than simply multiplying the tragedies inherent in criminal law.

When I was a federal prosecutor, I got to be a tangential player in one of the great and compelling dramas in American law—a beautiful juxtaposition of transgression and truth, violence and principle.

A man (it was nearly always a man) would run from the police.  He had robbed a bank, or sold narcotics, or fled the border, and was caught.  He would run across a street, a field, a frozen lake, pursued by three or four officers.  When he was caught, as he usually was, he would be thrown to the ground, rolled over, a knee would be placed roughly on his neck to hold him in place, and his hands would be shackled behind his back while he writhed on the ground.

It would be then—after the man was subdued but while he still struggled—that the most remarkable thing would happen.  One of the officers would reach, still breathing heavily, into his pocket, retrieve a card, and read aloud the Great Principles of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment:

You have the right to remain silent.

You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you.

If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.

You can decide at any time to stop any questioning….

What a glorious, amazing thing!  There in that rough field or alleyway, the improbable is recited—that we do not force confessions, that we value counsel, and that we do not favor the rich over the poor.   These are principles.  These exemplify wisdom.  And, sadly, they are rarely addressed as such in law school, where we bury ourselves in rules that have come to encase those principles within a thick coat of opaque and hoary jurisprudence.

This article has a simple premise:  That if we are to teach towards wisdom in addition to knowledge, we must teach principles in addition to rules.  Principles, unlike rules, allow room for personal agency, inner conflict, and the entry of the Holy Spirit—a perfect recipe for wisdom. (more…)

“Education under arrest: The case against police in schools”

By Melanie Wilmoth

A recent report published by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reveals that punitive approaches to student discipline do little to curb violence and crime in schools.

JPI points out that the adoption of punitive discipline policies (such as “zero tolerance” policies) in the 1990s led to dramatic increases in the presence of law enforcement in schools:

 “In order to enforce zero tolerance policies, there was a concurrent increase in surveillance and security measures in schools that included metal detectors, locker checks, security cameras, and law enforcement or security personnel. For example the regular presence of security guards increased 27 percent between 1999 and 2007.”

Rather than letting school administrators handle discipline problems, schools are increasingly turning to school resource officers (SROs). Essentially, SROs are law enforcement officers who work in schools:

“SROs are typically accountable first to the police department and then to the school, which might pay part of an SRO’s salary or administrative costs. Nonetheless, a handbook for recruiting and retaining SROs, says that an SRO can overrule a school administrator who wants to prevent the arrest of a student.”

Although SROs are trained in law enforcement, there is no policy requiring SROs to be trained to work with students. (more…)

Racial gap in school suspensions widens

A report released by the National Education Policy Center, sheds light on the growing racial gap in school discipline. The report indicates that black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school for minor infractions. As research suggests, students who are removed from school are much more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. In turn, kids who are locked up as juveniles are more likely to be incarcerated as adults. In essence, discipline policies and the disproportionality in school suspensions serve to effectively funnel kids of color through the school-to-prison pipeline. MW

Racial Gap in School Suspensions Widens

Black students are often removed from school for minor infractions, says a new report.

by Joshua R. Weaver

In Mississippi, Wanda Parker’s son was suspended from school after being caught with an iPod Touch, which, she says, administrators mistook for a cellphone. She unsuccessfully pleaded for weeks to get her son admitted back into school. But because of the school district’s zero-tolerance cellphone policy, Parker’s son, who is African American, missed seven weeks of normal instruction and spent 45 days at an alternative school.

School suspensions for nonwhite students in kindergarten through 12th grade have increased by more than 100 percent since 1970, according to a new report. Suspension rates for blacks outgrew those for whites during the same time period, increasing by more than 10 percentage points by 2006, a year in which about a quarter of black students were suspended at least once.

Parker was among a group of parents, administrators, policymakers, judges and academics who convened last week at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss the report’s findings, its implications and the ongoing problem of school-discipline disparity.

“These zero-tolerance policies dehumanize schools and make them feel more like a prison than a second home,” Parker says. “My son was shamed and deprived of his education.” (more…)

Gay at Baylor: A Christian Challenge

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post

By Mark Osler

This past October, I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Repentance of an Anti-Gay Bigot.”  Among the dozens of responses I received were many from my former law students at Baylor University, where I taught for ten years.  They were heart-wrenching, revealing the pain of attending Baylor in fear of being found out and expelled; of isolating themselves from their classmates; and ultimately their alienation from Baylor and even Christianity.  Baylor bars gays and lesbians from the faculty, and has fought hard to keep any gay student support groups from gaining recognition.  It has done this in the name of Jesus Christ, claiming the authority of the Bible.

I don’t teach at Baylor anymore.  This week I am starting my second year as a professor of law at a Catholic school, St. Thomas, in Minneapolis.  Though smaller than Baylor, it is similar in many ways.  It is strong in its faith identity, and the majority of faculty (at least in my department) and students are more conservative than you would find at most other schools.  Yet, there are differences, and at least one may be crucial to Baylor’s future.

 After a few weeks of teaching sentencing at St. Thomas, one of my students stopped by to see me right before lunch, so I invited him to join me.  He had a genuine interest in criminal law, and in particular wanted to work for the U.S. Department of Justice, my former employer.  I love talking about the DOJ, and asked him which division he would like to work in.

 He immediately told me he wanted to work in the Civil Rights Division in Washington, an important and often controversial office.  Looking over my sandwich at this middle-aged white male, I asked “Why Civil Rights?”

Mark Osler

He immediately responded, “Well, I’m gay.”  He then began to describe some of the work he had already done in the area, but I barely knew he was talking—after ten years at Baylor, I was in a state of shock to hear a student openly admit this to a professor in a public place.  I looked behind me to see if anyone we might know was around, and felt relieved when there were only strangers.

I need not have worried.  St. Thomas has a gay and lesbian student organization, my administrative assistant is openly gay, and two of my colleagues who are full professors are also openly gay and are welcome to (and do) bring their partners to law school events.  Yet, not only does the school survive, but the fact that we are welcoming to gays and lesbians does not in the least seem to be read as any kind of statement on the part of our sponsoring body, the Archdiocese of Minnesota.  We are a community that includes gay men and lesbians as faculty, staff, and students, and stand proudly together as Christians.

Baylor can accept gays and lesbians without sacrificing anything.  Yes, the student code of conduct bars pre-marital sex, but gays and straights are equally susceptible to breaking that rule; if potential for sexual relations is a reason to bar anyone, it is a reason to bar everyone.   That rule should be enforced evenly.  All evidence now is that it is enforced in the dorms, but not elsewhere.  If that is the case, then enforcement should be consistent, gay or straight.

Former Baylor President Abner McCall once told a good friend of mine that “Baylor can’t be a Christian.  Only people can be Christian.”  As Christian people we must be both honest and loving.  Honesty tells us that there have been, are now, and will be gays and lesbians at Baylor.  If the plan has been to exclude them, Baylor has done a lousy job.   Given that gay men and lesbians are and will be students at Baylor, love instructs us to help them grow in faith and to welcome them, rather than exclude or demean them.

 The time has come for Baylor to hire gays and lesbians who meet all other requirements; to lift the veil of fear from student life; and to allow gay and lesbian groups to establish themselves on campus.  Baylor is strong, proud, and Christian, and all of those qualities make such a change possible without a loss of identity.

 To remain an engaged and relevant institution, Baylor must change.  Its message to gays and lesbians has to be something other than what is perceived on campus now:  That if you are gay, there is no love for you, on Earth or in Heaven.  Christ promises more, and so should Baylor.

Texas offers Bible classes while vocational training is slashed

By Alan Bean

According to stories published this weekend in the Texas press, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will soon be offering a four-year course in biblical studies to forty inmates.

The training isn’t intended to prepare inmates for pastoral ministry in the outside world–most of the students are serving long sentences and will be locked up for many years.  Prison officials know that gangs and God are the most popular survival mechanisms for inmates.  Gangs create grief; a focus on God encourages compliance and reduces violent behavior.  By enhancing the God-option, state officials hope to create more disciplined and less violent prisons.

If you have been reading my recent posts on Burl Cain, the evangelical warden of Louisiana’s Angola prison, you will be wondering if the fledgling Texas program is a Louisiana import.  Yes, it is.  State Senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) were recently introduced to the Angola program and came away impressed.

Part of me thinks likes this idea.  Having preached, sang and prayed with prisoners in the past, I know how important faith can become for people who have been stripped of everything but God.

But there are problems.  Lots of problems.

As Scott Henson points out in Grits for Breakfast, vocational programs for Texas inmates were slashed during the recent legislative session.  In effect, prison officials have diverted resources from a program geared to assist with post-release employment for a program promising to instill obedience and reduce violence.

Why can’t we have both?

Henson is also concerned that TDCJ is giving preferential treatment to the fundamentalist wing of the religious community.  It isn’t just that the new program amounts to state sanction of a single religion; it awards all the marbles to sectarian Baptists who, in recent years, have ruthlessly disenfranchised moderate churches and pastors.

Between 1980 and the mid-nineties, Southern Baptists across the South mounted a brutal purge against the denomination’s “moderate” element (there were few real “liberals” in the SBC).  I was working on a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky between 1989 and 1994. When I arrived, the faculty was little changed from the folks who taught my wife, Nancy, and me back in the 1970s.  Two years later, all four professors in the church history department had been forced out and the same dismal pattern was being replicated throughout the seminary. Then many of the conservative replacements suffered the same fate (most commonly because they believed women were worthy of ordination).

The General Baptist Convention of Texas, a conservative organization if ever there was one, was deeply troubled with these developments, especially as they played out in Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Seminary.  The ouster of the irenic Russell Dilday as seminary president created an ideological cleavage among Texas Baptists that will take at least a generation to heal.

As a result, Southwestern Seminary is no longer affiliated with the General Baptist Convention of Texas, having thrown in its lot with the fundamentalist (and highly politicized) Southern Baptists of Texas.

By throwing in its lot with radical fundamentalists without creating opportunities for other faith groups, the TDCJ is favoring folks aligned with the pro-Republican religious right. (more…)

Texas and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

By Melanie Wilmoth

A recent Washington Post article by Donna St. George sheds light on the increasing criminalization of student discipline in the US and the effect it has on Texas children.

As a result of zero-tolerance policies, schools have been funneling kids from the classroom to the cell-room through what some are calling the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Schools have increasingly turned to ticketing to deal with behavior issues that, in the past, were handled by school administration. It is not uncommon for students to receive school-based tickets for disruptive behavior such as cursing in class, tardiness, truancy, and fighting. Shockingly, a 2010 report by Texas Appleseed indicated that children as young as 6 have received tickets.

St. George points to some equally alarming facts:

[Texas] stands out for opening up millions of student records to a landmark study of discipline, released in July . The study shows that 6 in 10 students were suspended or expelled at least once from seventh grade on. After their first suspension, they were nearly three times more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system the next year, compared with students with no such disciplinary referrals…Students who have been arrested or appeared in court are more likely to drop out of high school…Dropouts, in turn, are more likely than graduates to be incarcerated or unemployed.

The criminalization of student disciple has become such a prominent problem in the US, that national organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have made challenging the “school-to-prison pipeline” one of their key issue areas.

Texas students sent from classroom to courtroom

By Donna St. George

SPRING, TEX. — In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.

“Guilty,” the boy’s mother heard him say. (more…)

Tough on crime; tougher on education

By Chelsea Zamora

High school graduates have recently been walking across the stage, receiving their diplomas, and preparing to leave home for the first time. While this is true for some, a good number of students are staying at home and receiving their education from local community colleges.

While many factors play into why one chooses community college, cost plays a major role, especially in low income families. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, community college is less than half the cost of attending a regular university, with students saving money on things like tuition and housing expenses. Between the years 2000-2007, there was a 31% increase in students attending a two year college, compared to a 19.9% increase in students attending public universities in Texas. This shows how rapidly the community college system has been expanding. (more…)

Banning Books in Prison

By Chaka Holley

Many were shocked when Gary Indiana, a decaying city with a population of 100,000, announced the closing of the city’s main library. Due to budget cuts, the library board voted 4-3 to close the bankrupted city’s main branch. The public response was not in favor of this decision.  For many, the public library was their only access to books and other resources.

Gary is not alone; prisons are also limiting access to reading materials. These limits are not due to budget cuts however, but to prohibition.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing South Carolina’s Berkeley County Jail for prohibiting all books outside of the Bible. In Connecticut, the department of corrections is following suit. Similarly, other prisons around the country are also under scrutiny for banning books. (more…)

Bob Moses: The White-Power Legislature

I’m not suggesting anything conspiratorial here—Heaven forbid!—but it does seem mighty suspicious that school funding is being decimated at a time when Texas schools are “browning” at a rapid pace. In the last decade, Hispanic enrollment in public schools jumped by 50 percent, with 775,000 more students. Meanwhile, 6 percent fewer Anglo students are enrolled, as well-off whites opt for private schools. Why is public-school funding less of a priority for Anglo legislators nowadays? You do the math.  (Bob Moser, Texas Observer)

Teachers in Texas are sighing with relief now that the Texas Legislature has cut “only” $4 billion from the public education budget.  That doesn’t sound so bad when some were forecasting cuts in the $8 million range.  But Mob Moser, writing in the Texas Observer, says the spirit of the current legislative session reflects a new and pernicious species of white supremacy.

 The White-Power Legislature

Published on: Monday, May 16, 2011

Back in February, at a rally protesting anti-immigrant legislation, state Rep. Lon Burnam raised some eyebrows by letting loose with the “R” word. “You are here,” he told the crowd at the Capitol, “to say no to the most racist session of the Texas Legislature in a quarter of a century.” The Fort Worth Democrat had in mind such bills as Voter ID, which suppresses minority votes, and “Sanctuary City” legislation, which would legalize racial profiling. It had been decades, Burnam argued, since so many laws were aimed at putting non-whites, you know, in their place. “All of this legislation is really directed that way,” he said. “Everybody knows it.” (more…)