GLEN BURNIE – Tavon Taylor is probably more enthusiastic about his fiberoptics and copper cabling class than the typical Anne Arundel Community College student, but that’s easy to understand.
If he wasn’t in class, Taylor and his classmates would be in prison.
“Oh man, it’s great!” said Taylor, 21, who is serving time for a handgun violation. “This class is teaching us about cabling, which is wonderful because now I’m learning a new skill that may help me in a job. Plus, it’ll save me money, knowing how to do this stuff for myself!”
College-level programs like Taylor’s are available to about 1,000 Maryland inmates each year, through a combination of federal and private grants.
But the programs are being threatened by cuts to both sources of funding. President Bush’s 2003 budget proposal zeroes out all $17 million in state grants for posts-secondary education for prisoners, including Maryland’s $356,875. And a four-year $1.2 million grant from George Soros’ Open Society Institute, which has propped up Maryland’s prison college program for the last three years, was not renewed.
“I’d say if the federal funding dried up, the prospects for this program are about nil,” said Carolyn Buser, director of correctional education in Maryland. “We’ve exhausted all private prospects of funding and the state has indicated it’s not about to fund a program of this nature — certainly not in the current fiscal situation.”
That worries Buser, who said she has seen for herself how idle hands do the devil’s work behind bars. The smarter the prisoner, she warned, the more trouble he or she is likely to cause.
“The types of students in the post-secondary classes, if they’re not using they’re minds and skills for constructive purposes, they would use their ingenuity to confound the system, by plotting to cause trouble and mayhem,” she said.
Angel Green, an inmate at the women’s prison in Jessup, agreed. The Essex woman said the college program helps “keep things calm” at the facility because an infraction for bad behavior means expulsion from classes.
As a student in the prison’s on-site college program, Green said she knows she’s getting a good ride.
“They provide you with books, paper and pens, so that if no one’s sending you money, all you have to put into the class is yourself,” she said. “Even my boyfriend says, `I’m out here working hard, and you’re in there just getting it all for free.'”
That is precisely the problem, said Dianne Clements, president of Justice For All, “The question that families of victims ask over and over is, why didn’t someone give me a free college education?” said Clements, whose Houston-based organization advocates tough-on-crime justice system reform.
“Right now, we’re serving up on a silver platter reward for committing crimes,” she said.
But it’s money well spent, said Green, a high-school dropout who got her GED after coming to prison.
Green, 22, is eight months into a three-year sentence for being an accessory to armed robbery after-the-fact at the McDonald’s in Essex. With the end of her sentence in sight and some community college credits under her belt, she hopes to study criminal law and eventually become an attorney.
“I can understand why they want to (cut funding), the money being for inmates,” she said. “But when you’re in here, there’s nothing else you can do. I can’t go and get my job back. This way, when I leave I’ll be able to get caught up with people my own age.”
The federally funded program, officially called “Grants to States for Incarcerated Youth Offenders,” can be used only for post-secondary education of prisoners under age 26, who have less than five years to serve.
Congress created the “youthful offenders” grants in 1997, three years after blocking the use of other need-based financial aid programs — Pell Grants — for prison education.
The youthful offender grants helped revive post-secondary prison education in Maryland. But because those grants are smaller and have a narrower application, the state has had to balance its public and private funding, using federal dollars for younger prisoners and Open Society dollars for the rest.
Bush’s fiscal 2003 budget said youthful offender grants will not be reauthorized, because up to 8.25 percent of Adult Education grant funds have been set aside “to meet the literacy needs of incarcerated individuals.” In Maryland’s case, that could mean up to $680,508 for prisoners’ education.
But lobbyists and Education Department officials say the set-aside will not cover college programs of any kind — only K-12 level and remedial adult coursework.
“It’s a shell game, but there’s nothing under the shells,” said Steve Steurer, director of the Correctional Education Association.
He predicted that Congress will ultimately restore funding for the youthful offender grants. Buser said she hopes that’s true.
“It’s such a waste not to fund a program like this,” she said. “It’s such an efficient, cost-effective program, and the benefits for society are tremendous.”
She pointed to a 2001 study of prisoners in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio, which shows that education in prison cuts down on the return rate of prisoners. The Correctional Education Association study said that inmates who receive any type of education while serving their time are 22 percent less likely to wind up in jail again.
“If I was speaking to Congress, I’d tell them we feel rehabilitated,” said Chantel Walker, 25, speaking for her college classmates at the women’s prison in Jessup. “I’d rather have my tax money going to education in prison and having someone rehabilitated, than to pay for them to come back here again.”
Jailed on and off since 1995 for writing bad checks, Walker said she feels like she’s grown up in prison. But, she said, her current stint is going to be her last.
“This is not a revolving door for me,” she said. “I see so many doors for myself now, whereas before I wasn’t seeing any.”