The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Better build schoolrooms for "the boy"
Than cells and gibbets for "the man."... ...Eliza Cook.

Commentary of the Day - May 14, 2003:  It's Cheaper to Send Someone to Penn State Than to State Pen!

For years prisons were a growth industry in California.  Thanks to a "three strikes" law that failed to distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders as well as a number of changes in state laws that raised minimum sentences for a many offenses, the prison population in California is now the third largest in the world -- just behind the U.S. federal prison population and the prison population of the People's Republic of China.  With more than 30 "campuses" the California state prison system is larger than either the California State University system or the University of California system.  Recently, California voters passed an initiative that provided for alternative treatment for many narcotics offenders who were arrested only for possession of contraband substances.  Since then there has been some leveling off in the growth of the prison population.

Two trends that have accompanied the growth in California's prison population are a sharp rise in clout of the prison guards union (the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA)), and a sharp decline in the number and type of educational opportunities available inside the walls.

Prisons are costly, labor intensive institutions.  The guard-to-inmate ratio for our prisons is much higher than the faculty-to-student ratios for our college systems.  And, CCPOA has been spectacularly successful in garnering double digit salary increases for its members.  They have accomplished this by applying punitive levels of campaign contribution pressure to both Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature.  According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, although CCPOA has only about one-tenth the membership of the California Teachers Association (CTA) it has outspent CTA in recent election cycles by a margin of two to one.

Recently, the guards union has been waging a campaign against the only remaining program in the state prison system that allows inmates to earn degrees from a California community college.  According to an article by Jenifer Warren in the May 10, 2003 edition of The Los Angeles Times, Kelly Breshears, president of the union local that represents guards at Ironwood State Prison at Blythe, CA in the remote desert reaches of eastern Riverside County, is campaigning for the elimination of the program at Ironwood that allows inmates to take courses from Palo Verde Community College.

The program at Ironwood is open only to prisoners who are within two years of their release dates and who have had no disciplinary infractions during the 12 prior months.  It enrolls about 280 inmates who attend class by viewing videotapes of the Palo Verde courses and taking exams inside the prison under the supervision of proctors.  Another 800 inmates currently are on the waiting list to enter the program.  The guards union is upset because the inmates receive free books and do not pay the modest tuition that other community college students pay.  They have claimed that the program diverts college resources from other residents in the area.  However, officials at the community college district claim that the program actually has allowed them to expand their offerings for all residents, and in fact many people in the remote areas of the far flung district now use the same videotaped courses to pursue a degree.

The union was successful in eliminating a similar program at nearby Chuckawalla Valley State Prison earlier in the year.  Their argument is that such programs should not be available to rapists, molesters, and murderers.  Indeed, many of the folks who end up in the state's prisons are not going to win any awards for good citizenship, and a fairly large number are both evil and dangerous.  However not all fall into that category.  Ironwood State Prison houses minimum and medium security prisoners many of whom are incarcerated for less violent offenses.  These are people who are going to be back on the streets in a few years regardless of how much, or how little effort we put into rehabilitating them.

Clearly it makes sense to make some effort to provide these inmates with skills that might help them find a job when they return to the streets.  In fact Ironwood already provides a number of vocational programs that must cost the taxpayers at least as much as the $750 per year that it costs for each inmate in the college program.

While it's easy and somewhat appealing to adopt a "lock 'em up and throw the key away" attitude towards all criminals, in reality this view is short-sighted both with respect to the interests of the correctional officers and with respect to the interests of California taxpayers.  Because inmates must meet good behavior standards for admission and for continuation in the program, the community college program at Ironwood helps to make the prison safer for both the officers and inmates.

California has a notoriously high recidivism rate for its convicts.  While education programs are not a panacea, they do help to reduce the recidivism rate.  Those enrolled in the college program appear to have a fairly high level of motivation.  Given the very high cost of keeping inmates in prison in California, it seems likely that even a modest reduction in the recidivism rate would more than cover the costs of the program.

We can't understand why the CCPOA is opposed to the program at Ironwood, unless of course, they feel that it is in their interests to keep prison populations as high as possible.  Eliminating educational opportunities for prisoners certainly does that.

Up to now the warden at Ironwood, James E. Hall, has backed the community college program.  We hope that he can resist union pressure to do otherwise.  And, although it is unlikely to happen any time soon, we would encourage the state legislature to develop a bit of spine when it comes to dealing with the unreasonable demands of  CCPOA on this issue.

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