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CRIME : Locked Education Door Raises Fears for Inmates : Ex-warden and prisoner advocates say loss of Pell grants takes away hope. But tough line is backed by those who see coddling.

March 07, 1995|GARRY BOULARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANGOLA, La. — The sound of the national debate on tougher prison sentencing echoes in the ears of John Whitley like the wind in this rugged 18,000 acres of prison land on the banks of the Mississippi.

"It's the politically popular thing to be saying right now," said Whitley, who until recently was warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The prison houses more than 4,600 men, with two-thirds on Death Row or serving "practical life" sentences of up to 400 years.

"But what the politicians don't seem to take into consideration is the ramifications of it all," he continued. "By making life tougher for the average prisoner, they're also making it tougher for us to run the prison. They're taking away the one thing that keeps many of these prisoners peaceful: hope."

A case in point is last year's anti-crime law. A section of the act eliminated Pell grants for prisoners who want to take college classes. In 1994, more than 28,000 inmates received such grants nationally. At the Louisiana penitentiary, known as Angola, 130 completed the computer technology and paralegal programs funded by the grants in 1993 and 1994.

"These classes were just a small part of the prisoners' lives," Whitley explained. "But (the classes) gave them some hope while they're here--and at least some skills for after they leave. You can't run a prison with just punishment; somewhere you have to have some rehabilitation."

But the emphasis on tough time instead of rehabilitation is potent across the nation, including Louisiana, which has one of the highest per capita prison populations with more than 17,000 people behind bars.

"It's not supposed to be anything other than a horrible place for them," said Louisiana state Rep. Robert Adley, who introduced a measure last year to greatly restrict inmate access to telephones and televisions. "It ought to be a rough time, harsh time, the absolute worst thing a person could go through."

To Adley, the gutting of Pell grants for prisoners is something less than a tragedy. "You cannot blame the high rate of recidivism on not having computers to better educate prisoners," he argued.

" . . . The recidivism rate is high because these people, when they are supposedly being punished, really aren't being punished at all. For some of them, prison is actually a pleasant experience."

On paper, some of Angola's amenities seem to bear Adley out: The prison has its own radio station, an inmate-run magazine that has won several national awards, a drama club, an annual rodeo that brings in up to $50,000 and appetizing food, such as pizza, fried chicken, tamales and jambalaya.

But such amenities don't stretch far in a place where the inmates work the fields in the hot Louisiana summer harvesting cotton and vegetables, said Rob Roberts, founder of Project Return in New Orleans, a group providing employment, education and drug counseling for released prisoners.

"The stories they tell us of prison life are astonishing," Roberts said. "They talk of never going to sleep without their left arm laying over their throat to protect them from being strangled, or putting a book on their chest to prevent a stabbing. Young nonviolent offenders are regularly thrown in with the most violent inmates. . . . The last thing on earth that happens is rehabilitation."

Roberts cited Nelson Marks, one of Project Return's counselors, as evidence that rehabilitation is possible.

A 40-year-old former drug dealer and bank robber who served 12 years in prison--seven at Angola--Marks began his rehabilitation through classes funded by the Pell grant in prison. After his release, Marks returned to the New Orleans bank he had robbed. "I wanted to tell those people in person how sorry I was for everything that happened. It was just something I had to do."

When he entered Angola, Marks was a heroin addict with an eighth-grade education who spent the first two years working in the prison's fields and digging ditches. Today he holds an undergraduate degree and, with Roberts, helped organize Project Return, which is sponsored by Tulane University.

To Marks, the loss of Pell grants is a disaster. "When a prisoner gets out, there is an 'X' on his back. . . . Society rejects him. And even with the prison classes, it's hard to find work. Without the classes, forget it, your chances are even less."

Marks believes that educating an inmate reduces crime and recidivism. And the numbers seem to support his argument. A Department of Justice survey last year found that college courses for inmates resulted in a reduction in recidivism from about 60% before the classes were offered to less than 30% afterward.

At Angola, where the recidivism is more than 40%, Whitley said, less than 10% of those taking the classes have returned, while only seven of the 156 ex-convicts who took classes through Project Return ended up back behind bars. "That's a recidivism rate of 4.5%," Roberts said.

But rehabilitation advocates acknowledge that the trend toward tough time may be so strong that it cannot be turned back. Even Louisiana state Rep. Buster Guzzardo, a conservative critic of many prison programs, says he is worried. "If you make things ridiculously tough, you'll end up with a riot."

But, said Marks, "the majority of people who will die (in riots) will be prisoners, and society figures they deserve it anyway. That's why losing this Pell grant funding only means something to the prisoners. I'm not sure anyone else much cares about it."

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