by Kurt Erickson
Lori Williams spent 18 months in a state prison on a drug conviction. But the 49-year-old Macon County resident says her time behind bars in the late 1990s didn’t go to waste.
While serving her sentence at the Decatur Correctional Center, Williams set her sights on emerging from this dark period by taking advantage of the educational programs offered at the all-female facility.
She took college classes, tutored other inmates in reading and math and went on to earn two associate’s degrees. She also received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and is now working on a doctorate.
“It would have been so much easier for me to just give up,” Williams says.
Williams is among thousands of Illinois prison inmates who annually take advantage of education programs while they are serving their sentences. Most take basic education classes in an attempt to earn high school diplomas. Some take courses aimed at preparing them for jobs once they are released.
But the percentage of inmates who are involved in educational programming at Illinois Department of Corrections facilities has been dropping in recent years, according to statistics provided by the agency.
Figures show that nearly 71 percent of the inmate population took some sort of class in the 2006 fiscal year. That number has dropped to just below 60 percent in the past three years.
And although the department says it plans to spend about $4 million more this year on educational programming than the $22 million it spent last year, a recent spike in the inmate population could keep those percentages low again.
At any one time, upward of 7,500 inmates spread across the state’s sprawling prison system take some sort of educational or vocational class aimed at reducing the chances that they’ll return once their sentences run out.
In a 1997 study, Illinois Department of Corrections researchers found that inmates who leave prison with basic degrees and job training are far less likely to return. A separate study by the Correctional Education Association found education behind bars led to a 29 percent decrease in recidivism.
“Studies show that inmates who find work once they are released from prison are less likely to recidivate,” noted Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sharyn Elman.
With Corrections estimating the average cost of incarceration at an Illinois prison at $25,000 — and the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, saying it could range as high as $64,000 — limiting a return trip to the slammer is one way to relieve pressure on the state’s muddled finances.
Williams, who has made prison education a major part of her post-graduate studies, says, “You reduce recidivism, and you can ease the pressure on the state budget.”
Illinois offers a mix of classes for inmates. Basic high school diploma programs are often taught by in-house Department of Corrections employees. There also are vocational training programs that Illinois community colleges provide on a contractual basis.
In those programs, inmates can learn work skills, such as auto body repair, construction, food service and barbering.
Inmates also can take college-level academic courses.
In recent years, however, the state’s ability to continue running prison education programs through the community colleges has come under question.
In a May 2010 study, the John Howard Association issued a report criticizing what it says were reductions in prison education programs.
The report noted that in 2002, nearly 6,000 inmates, or 14 percent of the prison population, were enrolled in college programs. By 2009, that number had fallen to 4,730.
In 2002, there were 136 vocational programs available in Illinois prisons, according to the report. In 2009 there were only 96.
A separate report prepared for the General Assembly by the Department of Corrections shows enrollment in educational programs dropped by 1,000 inmates between January 2010 and August 2010.
A key reason for the reductions is the state’s failure to pay vendors — the colleges — in a timely manner.
Beginning last summer, as the state’s financial woes continued their downward spiral, community colleges began dropping out of the program, complaining they could no longer wait for the state to pay its bills.
At Illinois Eastern Community Colleges based in Olney, Chief Executive Officer Terry Bruce says the prison education programs are one of his proudest achievements.
“It was one of the good things that we did. It’s Christian type of work,” he says.
Bruce, a former congressman, says he spoke at every graduation and watched as inmates left prison for jobs that would keep them from coming back. He says the work done by his educators helped reduce recidivism.
“It’s a huge savings for the taxpayer to not have these people returning to prison,” Bruce says.
But, he says, the state’s massive backlog of bills forced him to give up the contract last summer. Through November, the Department of Corrections still owed the college $415,000 for work the college completed before June 30.
“We could not afford to run that program and not get paid for it,” Bruce says. “I’m sorry as hell that we’re not doing it.”
Illinois Eastern’s programs, like others that folded, were taken on by Lake Land College, based in Mattoon.
Although state officials have tried to keep the programs intact, the director of Lake Land’s prison education program says he has no doubt that cutbacks have occurred.
“There are far less classes,” says Tom Kerkhoff. “It’s appreciably less than it was eight years ago.”
Deciphering exactly how much has been cut remains tricky. An analysis provided by the Illinois Community College Board shows the number of hours taught by community college instructors has dropped by about 6.7 percent since the 2007 fiscal year.
One major problem has been a lack of new hiring by the Department of Corrections.
“If we have an employee resign, we don’t get to post for a replacement,” Kerkhoff says.
A recent check of open jobs at the Department of Corrections showed just one education position posted. Agency officials were looking for a canine instructor to help with an inmate service dog training program at the all-female prison in Dwight.
Richland Community College serves inmates at four prisons — Decatur, Logan, Lincoln and Pontiac. The institution primarily provides vocational certificate programs in areas such as food service, construction and commercial custodial services.
In 2010, Richland’s programs served 654 offenders.
“This is a smaller number than previous years due to a decline in the number of programs funded by IDOC,” notes Richland spokeswoman Lisa Gregory. “Although programs remain at capacity enrollment, the numbers of offenders served will continue to decline as long as the number of programs offered continues to decline.”
Like other schools, Richland is running the programs on the hope it eventually gets paid by the state.
The college’s four contracts with the prisons total $1.6 million this year. Through mid-December, it had been paid just $16,717. It took the state until December 10 to pay the $118,930 it owed Richland from the fiscal year that ended June 30.
It’s not just community college classes that may be suffering.
A 2007 report by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union alleged that Corrections’ officials were fudging some of the agency’s education statistics by reducing class times so they could fit more students into an instructor’s day. The net effect was no drop-off in the number of students but a significant drop-off in the amount of time those students were in class.
“Cutting the length of classes to increase the number of classes allows IDOC to meet the letter of the law without actually investing more resources in corrections education,” the report notes.
AFSCME says the decline began before the state’s fiscal problems went into a tailspin.
During former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s tenure, the union claims that front-line educational staff was reduced by 36 percent.
“Anyway you want to look at it, programming at Illinois prisons has been reduced. You’re left with glorified warehousing,” says AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “That’s counter to what we know about reducing recidivism.”
Lawmakers have tried to address the importance of education in prisons.
Corrections spokeswoman Elman acknowledged some classes have been shortened because of the state’s budget constraints. But, she says, the inmates are not being “shortchanged.”
“They are graduating with degrees, and their education is helping them as they integrate back into society once they are released from prison,” Elman says.
In sweeping anti-crime legislation approved in 2009, Senate Bill 1289 called for a plan to limit class sizes so that the student-teacher ratio is not larger than 30 to 1. That goal, however, doesn’t address how many classes Corrections may or may not offer.
John Maki, coordinating director of the John Howard Association, says it will take creative thinking to help turn around prison education in Illinois.
The Department of Corrections, for example, could increase its use of online learning for inmates. It could tailor special programs to specific prisons. And officials could turn to volunteers to help educate prisoners.
Not only could those ideas help inmates, but it could assist prison workers in running safer facilities. “When inmates are in classes, they are generally not causing problems,” Maki says.
Despite a plan to spend more money on prison education this year, it remains unclear whether demand will continue to outstrip supply. Department projections show the already overcrowded prison system could have nearly 49,200 inmates by the end of this fiscal year in June, up nearly 4,000 inmates from the prior year.
“All of our college programs have waiting lists,” Richland’s Gregory notes.
Williams, the former prisoner, says prison education programs are too valuable to let go by the wayside.
“These types of programs do have an effect. We have to have opportunities when we get out.”
Kurt Erickson is state Capitol bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.
Illinois Issues, February 2011
Female inmates at the
Decatur Correctional Center
in August receive certificates
from Richland Community College.