State officials are moving to revamp educational classes in prisons across California following widespread complaints that the programs are poorly designed and could leave some inmates ill-prepared for life after release.
A draft report released last week by the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board cited ongoing problems including “increased class size, reduced time in class, administrative paperwork, student turnover, wrongly assigned students, inmate homework, and elimination of some vocational education programs.”
In some California prisons teachers are struggling to handle as many as 150 students while inmates get as little as three hours of classroom instruction per week.
The report warned ineffective programs could hinder the “rehabilitative outcomes” of inmates. This in turn could undermine efforts to reduce prison overcrowding by cutting recidivism.
Many of the problems arose last year after budget cuts led the department of corrections to develop five new academic models and a literacy program that attempted to maximize enrollment by adjusting the number of hours inmates spend in classes each week.
The department also reduced its vocational classes by almost 50 percent, keeping only “programs that are industry certified, market driven based on employment development outlook data, have a minimum starting pay of $15 an hour, and can be completed within 12 months.”
The report by the rehabilitation oversight board found the new educational models did not comply with recommendations of a 2007 expert panel and were not “evidence-based” programs.
Prison educators agreed.
“It’s a numbers game. It’s not education,” said John Kern of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents state educators.
Of the roughly 21,000 adult inmates enrolled in academic classes last year, many ended up in "Model 4," which has a target student-teacher ratio of 120-1. Some 82 percent of the teachers assigned to Model 4 programs said they spent most of their time managing paperwork instead of working with students, according to union surveys.
“The classroom resembled more of a train station than anything else, with all the trains running slowly or canceled,” Kern said.
Prison officials conceded that program cuts were too aggressive and some educational models were poorly implemented.
“What we’re getting back in feedback from teachers, students, administrators alike is that we stretched that too far and that the teachers feel they have to see so many students now they really can’t be effective at all,” said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Cate said the department was working with educators and administrators to retool the academic models and cut the student-teacher ratios to more manageable levels.
Corrections staff declined to provide more details, saying the changes were still being worked out.
But in a tight budget environment there will be unavoidable trade-offs. It is expected that in order to lower the student-teacher ratio the department will cut available classroom slots, reducing the number of inmates enrolled in academic programs in the near term.
However, educators hope that increasing the amount of classroom instruction will boost academic performance and move inmates through the programs more quickly, thus opening new spaces.
“We should not act is if we’re tinkering with a functional program,” said Kern. “We are not meeting the needs of most inmates as it is. So any changes are welcome.”
If efforts to overhaul the academic models are successful, educators are hoping to revise the department’s assignment system, which determines how inmates are placed in various programs.
“We need a way to get inmates properly assessed so they are in the right program at the right time, every time. We’re still a long ways from being able to do that,” Kern said.