WASHINGTON – Maryland law says that prisoners without high school diplomas have to take classes toward their GED — but nothing in the law says the state has to make it easy for them.
Of the 14,000 inmates without diplomas, the state has room for only 4,000 in classes in its prisons, and at least 1,800 more are on a waiting list. And the proposed fiscal 2004 budget freezes the number of teachers from the program, a short-term move that advocates fear will have long-term effects.
“If people come out of prisons as ill-prepared and unable to function in the workforce as they were when they went in, then we are doing a great disservice to all. We’re just postponing the reckoning,” said Phil Holmes, spokesman for Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, which tries to help inmates work back into society.
State officials had approved an increase in the Correctional Education Program budget last year from $12.6 million to $14.2 million, but that increase was frozen when the state first ran into budget problems last year.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich has budgeted $13.2 million for the program in fiscal 2004, a “stand-pat” proposal that would allow for 174 staffers, down from 177 positions currently authorized.
“The program is critically important but it wasn’t an area that we were allowed to add money this year,” said Neil Bergsman, budget director for the Department of Budget and Management. “The correctional education budget was a stand-pat budget. We didn’t make any unusual cuts, we didn’t add any enhancements.”
Ehrlich would not be the first governor to stand pat on the correctional education budget.
A 2000 study by the University of Maryland’s Bureau of Governmental Research found that “resources devoted to educational and job preparation programs have not kept pace with the tremendous increase in the institutional population over the past 10 years.”
It said that while the prison population grew rapidly during the 1990s, “the resources allocated to educational staff grew a mere 4 percent. As a consequence, the proportion of inmates receiving educational services declined from 34 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 1999.”
State officials said that the correctional education program had 191 full- time staff in fiscal 1991, when the prison population stood at 17,800 iinmates. This week, the count stood at 24,040 inmates and 174 staffers.
“We actually have less staff . . . this year than we did last year,” said Steve Steurer, the correctional program coordinator at the Maryland State Department of Education.
He said the widening gap between prisoners’ needs and available services is beginning to show: The number of GEDs granted by the program fell from 972 in fiscal 2000 to 926 two years later.
And while staffing is stagnating, demand is not.
“By the end of fiscal year 2004, we are projecting that the division of corrections population will be will 24,700,” said Robert Gibson, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
About 60 percent of the state’s prisoners lack a high school diploma. Under state law, they must enroll in prison education programs if they have 18 or more months left on their sentences.
Once in the program, prisoners do well. A state Education Department report noted that “in fiscal year 2001, the correctional education program posted the highest GED pass rate for any agency in the state at more than 63 percent.” Steurer said the program’s drop-out rate was only 1.5 percent in fiscal 2002.
“We can increase the (program completion) numbers with more staff, but we need more staff, we need more teachers,” Steurer said.
A recent study of Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio inmates concluded that re- incarceration rates could be significantly reduced through education programs.
The study by the Correctional Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education, prompted state education officials to ask for a boost in correctional education funding. State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick called recidivism “a cycle that we know we can break with education.”
The lack of a general equivalency diploma is a handicap on the inside as well as the outside — without it, inmates are barred from working in prison industries.
But with the state facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall, said Bergsman, the money is not there to expand the program. The budget funds only those positions that are already filled.
Steurer said that while he understands the state’s budget restraints, the return on correctional education would be well worth the investment.
“We can guarantee at least a 20 percent drop in recidivism from educational participation, but we need more staff and more resources,” he said. “I am hopeful that as the economy straightens itself out that we will have the opportunity to improve our programming.”