Cost effective. Yes. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and several state legislators have it right: Give motivated prison inmates opportunities to acquire reading and writing aptitudes, math and vocational skills, and they will increase their chances of qualifying for honest employment when they get out.
Legislation passed this session and awaiting the governor's signature will reinstitute and reinvigorate education programs in the state's prisons that can reduce the ongoing and future expenditures caused by high recidivism. There are studies and statistics that bear out the benefits.
In addition to reducing recidivism, the programs will bring cost savings.
A community college adjunct is paid a modest per-course stipend of about $4,500 to teach a classroom packed with student inmates for a semester. By contrast, the cost of warehousing an inmate can be as high as $50,000 a year. Reduce the number of those returning to prison and the state's tab for imprisonments drops.
This bill does not entail controversial changes in the penal code, prosecution strategies, admissibility of evidence or sentencing guidelines. Those are separate matters that can be debated. What can and should be accepted, without rancor or partisanship, are the economics of having a better educated, more aware, more enlightened populace, more civil population — especially in communities and neighborhoods where there are so many opportunities for criminal conduct.
This bill isn't about pardon; it's not about amnesty or absolution; it does not excuse criminal conduct nor does it condone misconduct or threatening behavior. It does look to a transformation that redounds to the benefit of inmates' family members, neighbors and ultimately to taxpayers.
Until it was closed in January 2010, Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire offered GED, college-prep and entry-level community college courses to inmates who worked at making themselves eligible for classes. In-prison misconduct was — and should be — a disqualifier.
In math, inmates learned measurements, computations and formulas that made them more adept at shop math and carpenter's math — no matter how conversant they were with the "street math" that governed the transactions that landed them in prison.
English Composition instructors (including me) found that by imposing rigors — correct spelling, noun-verb agreement, verb tense differentiation and the recognition of sentence structure — a number of inmates assumed a commendable self-discipline that even corrections officers acknowledged. Cooperative and compliant inmates make for a more secure, safer, prison — less trouble, less cost.
Some readings prompted inmates to write reflective and remorseful pieces:
It's possible that an inmate who reads and writes about Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" and Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" will incorporate or adopt some "stops" or at least some "pauses" when again tempted outside by criminal lures.
It's possible that an inmate who reads Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" and watches Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" will be just a bit more mindful about how a parent's conduct affects his children.
The payoff for all of us, in addition to possible cost savings, is the chance that an inmate will ask a warden or superintendent for a copy of his diploma:
"May I have a copy to be sent to my daughter?"
"Can you make a copy of this — I'd like my son to see it."
Joseph H. Cooper teaches ethics and media law at Quinnipiac University, in addition to his work in prisons.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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