By Amanda Costikyan Jones
JESSUP – Maryland has reinstated college classes for inmates at seven state prisons, replacing federally funded programs that were eliminated in 1995.
The scaled-down college program is being funded with a combination of private and new federal funding. But prison officials and inmates both said they are happy to have even a limited program again.
“This is something that I had always had in mind to do,” said Floyd Michaux, who is serving a life sentence at the Maryland House of Correction Annex for murder. “When I was in the street, I just didn’t have time with everything that I was doing.”
Michaux is one of 40 inmates at the House of Correction Annex who were accepted into the new college program when it started in October. A total of about 270 inmates statewide are now enrolled in the college classes.
“We had about 1,000 students before,” said Dave Jenkins, a liaison between the state education and correction departments.
Those earlier student-inmates were able to use Pell Grants, federal funds intended to help needy students pay for college. But when Congress voted in 1994 to deny Pell Grants to inmates, the programs “kind of disappeared,” said Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Now the college programs are back, but they are smaller, and their future is uncertain.
Two new sources of funding have resurrected the college courses. One is a two-year-old federal program under which states can apply for Specter Grants. The grants, named for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., can be used only “for inmates who are under 25 who are eligible for parole within five years,” said Stephen Steurer, who coordinates correctional academics for the state. He said Maryland currently receives “about $230,000 a year on that.”
The other funding source is a $1.2 million grant from the private Center on Crime, Communities and Culture, a program of the Soros Foundations Network.
“The Soros grant allows us to use any age” inmates, Steurer said.
The other difference, he said, is that the Soros funders “want academic courses. They really are into the traditional college stuff … whereas the federal money tries to emphasize vocational post-secondary” education.
Jenkins said the seven prisons, in Jessup, Hagerstown, Cumberland and Westover, are now home to five academic programs and three that are primarily vocational.
Officials welcome the return of the college programs, which they say improve prisoners’ behavior in jail and dramatically decrease the odds that they will commit further crimes after release.
“The average inmate who is lifting weights and watching TV all day, that’s a dangerous inmate. That’s a bored inmate,” said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “Having them involved in projects on a daily basis, meaningful work … is crucial to the security and safety of the employees and the other inmates.”
Sipes said the department wants prisoners to have as many school and vocational programs as possible. “We have a long waiting list of inmates who would rather be involved in meaningful programs,” he said.
Many studies have found that inmates who participate in academic or vocational programs are much less likely to end up back in prison after release. A 1995 Virginia analysis found that 49 percent of inmates who did not participate in programs committed other crimes after their release, compared to 20 percent of those who completed programs and 38 percent of those who started but did not finish.
“You know what they say about idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” said Severino Alcantara, 26, a Jessup inmate and college student.
Alcantara, who is serving life plus 40 years for murder, said many inmates think, “‘There’s nothing for me to look forward to,’ so immediately they cause a confrontation.” Since college courses have resumed, he said, things have improved.
“A lot of them now, knowing that the college was back in here, are trying to chill out,” hoping they might be admitted to the courses, he said.
Jenkins and Steurer both said they are optimistic that the state will find a way to keep the college programs in place when the Soros grant runs out after four years.
“The research is showing that the education does work,” Steurer said. “The money you spend more than pays for itself quickly (in) reduced crime, people going out and getting jobs and paying taxes.”