Prison Education Can Bar The Door – Back In

In 2002, I was a frequent guest writer and columnist for a Louisville, KY magazine called The Snitch. With the rise of concern about prison education reform, I’m reprinting this article, which is still relevant. It first appeared in The Snitch of Louisville, August 15, 2002, under the title, “Teaching Inmates the Hard Way.”

Michael Foley is building a barbecue pit in the late morning heat. The lean, muscular blonde is stripped to his tee shirt and khaki pants. Though sweating, Foley seems genuinely content as he deftly scoops up mortar with a trowel and butters a brick.

Cattle wander in the fields nearby. The air is thick with humidity and the smells of burnt grass, cattle manure, ozone from the high-tension wires, and sun-baking bricks.

Larry Johnson admires Foley’s work.

“Think you can move it to my house?” Johnson says.

“Think you can get me out to put it in?” says Foley, inmate number 119451/156278, who, though yards from a Kentucky field, is segregated from it by the 14-foot high perimeter fence, complete with electronic sensors and topped by razor wire, of Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, in LaGrange, Ky.

Johnson may not be able to get Foley out, but if his work goes well, he may be able to keep Foley from coming back in.

“I’m attempting to put the prisons out of business,” he said.

Johnson, 48, tall, bearded and upbeat, is the principal of this joint’s education program. He absorbs Foley’s rejoinder and continues the tour, which has already moved through the hangar-like electrical, carpentry and automotive classes, to this masonry class.

Inmates move about freely, relaxed, working independently or in teams, or listening to their teachers. In the carpentry class, one works on a bathroom cabinet. Another sweeps up wood shavings, while another perfects a sleigh-bed to die for. Officers are scarce in the classrooms. Despite the omnipresent guard towers, fencing, and state-mandated khaki-uniforms, the surroundings don’t feel as oppressive as one would think.

“I have tried to make this feel and look like a school and not a prison,” Johnson said.

Built in 1981, and designed to hold 486, Luther Luckett bulges at the seams with a population of 1040. Making a school feel less like a prison is an accomplishment.

That prisons are overcrowded is no surprise. But the hard figures are shocking. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2000 1.3 million adults were doing time. When data is added for those on probation, in jail and on parole, the number soars to a sobering 6.5 million people, a rise of 350 percent from the 1980s, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Luckett, a medium security prison, houses [convicted] sex offenders, murderers, and every other type of felon except those on death row in Eddyville. Most of Luckett’s offenders, like those at every other prison, have something in common that people tend to forget—eventually they will be coming home.

Warden Larry Chandler, 60, a straight talker from Trimble county, with white hair and a professor’s spectacles, warned that before that time comes,

“You have to prepare them to go back and do something or they are just a drain on society in a different way.”

His is one argument in favor of education programs, such as the technical course that is turning Foley into a masonry expert.

Another argument for education is that it’s good for the prison.

“Inmates behave when they’re involved in some kind of program,” Chandler said.

But perhaps most significant, experts agree that education lowers the recidivism rate, that is, the rate at which criminals, once let out of prison, find their way back in.

“In here we deal with the four R’s – reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and ‘recidivism,” Chandler quipped.

Professor David Werner, director of the University of La Verne’s Educational Programs in Corrections (EPIC), and author of “Correctional Education: Theory and Practice,” said, “Education is the only thing that there is substantial evidence reduces recidivism. The more education an inmate gets, the less his chance of his returning to prison.”

The latest research continues to support this view. Last year’s “Three State Recidivism Study,” conducted by the Correctional Educational Association, and funded by a grant from the Department of Education, compared re-arrest rates of inmates released from Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio prisons between 1997 and 1998. The study found that “correctional education significantly reduced long-term recidivism” 29 percent for the prisoners studied.

But evidence notwithstanding, the national outlook for prison education is bleak.

“I have come to the absolute stunning conclusion that almost everything that has happened to prison education since 1990 has been depressing,” Werner said, “Because it has been a movement almost continually downhill.”

Most prisons have kept literacy and GED programs, Werner said. What he finds especially depressing are the lack of post-secondary programs that flourished during the heyday between the passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965, and 1994. The HEA created Pell grants, and prisons took advantage of them. But the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by Clinton in 1994, took Pell grants away from felons.

“My personal opinion is that was a mistake,” Chandler said. “We have to ask, ‘what are we accomplishing? Is mandatory sentencing working? What do we need to do?’ Education has to be high on everyone’s agenda.”

Without Pell grants, the bottom line dropped out of prison education. All but eight of the 350 programs shut their doors, teachers were laid off, and inmates left prison not much more educated than when they arrived.

Kentucky’s correctional institutions are among the few in the country that still offer college programs.

All of the post-secondary associate degree and technical diploma and certificate programs in Kentucky prisons, as well as its GED and adult basic education programs, are administered by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS).

According to Bryan Armstrong, KCTCS director of public relations, the college system spends $6.3 million of its $374 million annual budget on its 12 prison programs, covering salaries for 80 full time faculty and about 20 staff as well as equipment and classroom costs. The facilities themselves are the Department of Correction’s responsibility, as is financial aid, he said.

In 2001, the KCTCS enrolled 1359 inmates in technical programs and about 3500 in adult education programs. Some 450 more were taking courses leading to associate degrees. That’s about 10 percent of the system’s 52,000 students enrolled in credit courses.

“All that is at no cost to the taxpayer,” said Chandler.

One would be hard-pressed to calculate how a $6.3 million program could be provided at no cost to the taxpayer. But there’s a good reason for the “no cost” rhetoric.

Keith Bird, KCTCS’s chancellor, said, “Funding is a combination of state and federal funding. You can’t say that there’s no taxpayer dollars, because it ain’t true.”

More to the point, no taxpayer money is being spent on an inmate’s financial aid.

“That’s the hot issue,” Bird explained. “So what you get is people being sensitive and saying, ‘no we’re not spending taxpayers dollars per se on people who have committed a crime.’”

It may be just a matter of semantics, but it keeps emotions at bay, apparently, at a time when the country is in a mood to punish and not to rehabilitate.

“We focus on making the bars better,” said Chandler, who is designing a prison that will open 2004 in Elliot County. His new prison, the warden said, will have “a hell of an education program there.”

What the public doesn’t realize, Chandler said, is that educating prisoners to get on with their lives saves the taxpayers big bucks. Incarceration costs Americans $47 per day, he said.

Werner estimated that his EPIC program, which operates in a California juvenile facility, costs about $100,000 per year but saves taxpayers $500,000 per year.

“However, if people out on the streets who don’t know anything about the program start hearing that people in prison are getting college education, they get unhappy,” he said.

As long as the public rejects the idea of paying prisoners financial aid to go to school, the inmates have to pay their own tuition, which runs $175 per three hours in this state, plus $20 good faith money. Inmates can pony up out of their taxpayer-funded salaries—almost all inmates are assigned prison jobs that pay, on average, a whopping 75 cents per day—or prisons can find some other way to fund their tuition.

 “We have found some creative ways of getting funds and getting these guys some education,” Johnson said.

One of Johnson’s “creative ways” is staffer Gaye Holeman, the Jefferson Community College liaison. “She beats the bushes to try to find money to scholarship the guys.”

There’s also a modest scholarship fund, taken from canteen money. A canteen is a small store where the prisoners can buy snack foods, sodas, cigarettes and other items. In fact, the day of the tour, the canteen computer crashed while a line of prisoners waited outside in the heat, causing a small crisis for the warden.

Chandler said so far the prison had raised $17,000 to help pay the costs of education.

Back at the masonry wall, Stephen Foster, a graduate of the GED program, helps Foley level bricks, while relaying two of the program’s important benefits from the inmate’s perspective: staying occupied, and staying out of trouble.

“You’re tired and wore out when you get out (of class),” he says. That means he’s too tired to get himself in a mess. “It’s easy to get in trouble around here,” he admits.

The chief forms trouble takes are fights and write-ups resulting from infractions. Infractions can be minor, such as failing to wear the required ID badge, or major, such as refusing to obey an order. Consequences range from warnings, or, for big trouble, to being placed in “segregation” (solitary confinement), or even having time added to their sentences.

Foley pipes in, “Jobs like cleaning the bathroom don’t keep you busy all day long.” But after the class, he says, “I take a shower and I’m ready for bed.”

In the GED preparation class taught by Roy Holladay, an infectiously chipper man dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, Adam Alli, originally from the Sudan in Africa, tells what the program means to him.

“Through Mr. Holladay I find more life in me. I don’t feel like I’m in prison,” said Alli, who, when not studying, pursues a prison hobby: crafting picture frames from cardboard and glue.

Holladay, like most teachers at Luckett, whose salaries start at a modest $31,700, likes his job.

“This is the best I’ve ever had it in my life,” he said. “I love my students. They’re hard workers. Ready to learn, quiet, respectful.”

Construction and carpentry teacher John Shelbourne, 45, looks like a guy you’d have in a voc-ed class, with his ruddy, sunburnt face, blonde mustache, loafers, jeans and checked shirt. But he wouldn’t trade his time at Luckett for a public school job.

“We don’t have lunchroom duty, parents, open houses,” he said. Nor did he or any other teachers complain of behavior problems. The threat of write-ups or losing the privilege of taking classes was a major deterrent. Also effective for dealing with disruptions was a surprising threat for these hardened cons, Shelbourne said:

“If you don’t straighten up I’m gonna call your mother.”

Education proceeds stepwise, based on inmate testing, from elementary literacy courses, to the GED, and then either to technical or associate degree programs. As incentive, with each educational milestone earned, Kentucky statutes allow the inmate to reduce his sentence by 60 days, what’s called educational “good time.”

Before being allowed into the two-year, six-hour per weekday technical program, students must test to at least a 10th grade, fifth-month reading and math level, and must have already earned a high school diploma or GED.

In addition, they must be getting out within three to five years. That rule is simply practical.

“Technology changes,” Shelbourne said, “plus, there’s a learning curve.”

But any inmate doing any kind of time, even life, can earn an associate degree if he qualifies. Since the degrees are accredited, and granted by the KCTCS, they can be applied to any state college or university program.

Though Luther Luckett’s academic and technical programs may look like school, after all, this is a prison. And that means there are lots of rules and restrictions. For instance, although the automotive course has computers, you won’t find any with e-mail or access to the Internet. Then, no classes are held on foggy days—a security risk.

“We have got fog days instead of snow days,” Johnson said.

Several times a day, the prison does a count. If the count is off, classes will be late, he said. And of course, if there are lockdowns—periods when prisoners are confined to their cells—there are no classes.

“Security is numero uno,” Johnson said.

Tools are strictly accounted for. If not all tools checked out are checked back in, no one leaves. Nor will you find any chemistry classes on the curriculum.

Cindy Hall, the prison’s public information officer, said, “We’re talking about people who can make hooch out of nothing.”

Johnson added that if two inmates had a beef, one might throw acid in the other’s face, or maybe an inmate would steal acid to try and dissolve a lock.

“We think security, he thinks school,” Hall explained, with affection, of the principle and his efforts to improve education. “We have to try to find a balance.”

Since coming to Luckett in November 1999, Johnson, with Chandler’s help, has more than doubled enrollment, from 175 to 380 students.

Chandler, who is himself working toward a master’s degree in Justice Administration from the University of Louisville, said, “I use all the incentives at my discretion to get inmates to go to school.”

Whatever the studies conclude about education in prison, for the teachers in the trenches, the best evidence is their success stories.

Automotive technology instructor Dennis Lawrey said that several of his graduates have gotten jobs.

“And none of them have come back to prison, yet.”

He didn’t reveal names, but Lawrey said that one former student-inmate was a mechanic supervisor at a large corporation, and another, who had been in and out of jail for 20 years, now ran maintenance for a hotel chain.

As for the national attitude towards prison education, the pendulum may be starting to swing away from bars and back toward books.

“One thing I think may fuel a bright future for prison education. And that is money. The states are spending more and more money incarcerating people,” Werner said. “If people start realizing all this money that people are spending on prisons, they’ll want to make them more effective so that people won’t go back.”

If you’re interested in reading some of my other columns, try Read My Old Honda Fit Columns on You can peruse more of my writing in the Writing menu.

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