CT prison education cuts likely to hurt rehabilitation effort

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Just this month, The Crime Report – a publication out of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York –  congratulated Connecticut as a model of prison reform, saying the rates of imprisonment in the state are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years.

The party seems premature, even undeserved when one knows what’s really happening inside the state’s prisons. As a part of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget cutting frenzy, Connecticut’s correctional education – the programming most likely to aid a prisoner’s rehabilitation – is disappearing.

There are no formal announcements of this cancellation of education, but I know about it through my consulting work for the Petey Greene Program. Named after a formerly incarcerated radio personality in Washington, D.C., who passed in 1998, the Petey Greene Program started at my alma mater, Princeton University, and trains college students to enter correctional facilities and tutor incarcerated people preparing to take the G.E.D. exam. We have programs in seven states, including Connecticut.

At the core of the Petey Greene mission is the fact that the tutors supplement existing educational programs in the facilities; our tutors are not the teachers or administrators. They willingly donate their time as a support to systems that are already in place.

As a formerly incarcerated person myself, I know that correctional classrooms aren’t like traditional ones; students of differing levels and experiences are often lumped into one group and all receive the same lesson. It’s why the tutoring services provided by Petey Greene Program are so invaluable and so effective.

A study of Petey Greene tutors in New Jersey concluded that tutored students scored 30 scale points higher after special instruction in math from Petey Greene tutors – which is equivalent to another grade level. Tutoring in reading added about 50 scale points or 1.5 grade levels.

Since they supplement another program, Petey Greene tutors can’t go into prisons where no classes are taking place.

As of this past summer, Petey Greene volunteers can no longer tutor at Brooklyn CI; educational programming there has been slashed. We planned to send tutors from Yale Law into Garner CI in Newtown, where the current Commissioner of the Department of Correction, Scott Semple, was once the warden.

Just last week, it was revealed that Garner will not have “an educational presence” or teaching staff. Our tutors can’t get in there, either.

Garner houses youth gang members with special educational needs. Since any inmate aged 18-21 must enroll in school if they do not have a high school diploma, the decision to remove this program from Garner is not only unwise, it may also be unlawful.

With no teachers, there is no school. Where there is no school, no one learns their lessons. When no one learns their lessons, they repeat their mistakes.

This is why education is touted as the key to reducing recidivism. According to the biggest and most statistically sound study on correctional education, conducted by the RAND Corporation, an inmate’s chance at reoffending after release is reduced by 43 percent if he engages in educational opportunities behind bars.

The Malloy Administration cut its corrections budget by $34.8 million for 2017 and assumed $15 million in savings from Malloy’s so-called “Second Chance Initiative.”

The only way to salvage the Second Chance Initiative – and any savings from it that we’ve counted on – is to put some of this money back into corrections and reopen these classrooms.

It should surprise no one that austerity budgets don’t impress constituents or goad them into believing that unnecessary spending has stopped. On the contrary, austerity budgets simply abandon the most vulnerable people which is what is happening in our prison schools.

Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote last year in the Guardian that budget deficits are not the biggest problem facing a struggling society and curing them at all costs is damaging. While Krugman was looking at economics in a global context, his argument applies to the microcosm of correctional education in Connecticut.

Malloy can’t afford to be yellow-bellied about going into the red. If we don’t, more people will end up black and blue. The fallout from reducing correctional education will affect everyone.

Deficit spending is a valid way of reviving an economy while still looking out for indigent and disenfranchised populations. While Gov. Malloy and the republicans in the General Assembly may not like having to fork over more money to keep these classrooms open, when they reconvene in January they need to consider doing just that to keep everyone safe.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog, Prison Diaries, about her time at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. You can follow her on Twitter at @aprisondiary

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