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Union Targets Inmates' College Program

May 10, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California's powerful prison guards union is trying to kill one of only two programs in the state allowing inmates to earn college degrees, angering advocates who say that educating felons prevents many of them from committing crimes after their release.

The popular program at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe enrolls 280 inmates pursuing a two-year associate of arts degree through the local community college. It has 800 more convicts on a waiting list and has won accolades as a model that should be introduced at all 33 prisons.

But the local chapter of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has demanded that the warden abolish the program, arguing that it is wrong to provide state-funded education to rapists, molesters and murderers.

The inmates, like other eligible low-income Californians at community colleges, receive free textbooks and a waiver of fees through the program, which uses videotaped lectures and computer-based coursework in lieu of classroom teaching. The cost per inmate is about $750 a year, though the prisoners also receive counseling from college advisors.

In February, protests by the union prompted the elimination of a similar program at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, which is also in Blythe, said its spokesman, Lt. Warren Montgomery. That ended classes for 50 inmates.

The warden at Ironwood, James E. Hall, has so far stood behind the program. Hall said inmates who participate have proved far less likely to create disciplinary problems, and argued that educating convicts benefits society.

"If inmates can better themselves in prison, they're more likely to find a job when they get out and less likely to go back to their predatory ways," Hall said. "That's good for everybody."

But the president of the union's local chapter, Kelly Breshears, holds a different view. In a memo distributed to guards at the medium-security prison in eastern Riverside County, he said the union is outraged that Palo Verde Community College would provide state-funded education to inmates rather than offering it "to people in the community who pay taxes and may benefit from these services."

Neither Breshears nor officials at union headquarters in West Sacramento returned telephone calls from The Times seeking comment. But the April 23 memo urged members to boycott all prison-backed fund-raisers, blood drives, picnics and other functions until the program is canceled.

College officials say the union's characterizations of the program are inaccurate and that in fact the alliance with Ironwood has permitted them to add faculty, expand the curriculum and increase opportunities for other disadvantaged residents of their remote district.

Palo Verde Community College President James Hottois said that although he understands some of the thinking behind the union's complaints, teaching convicts is not depriving the free residents of Blythe of a chance at a college degree.

"The truth is no community member has been turned away because of this inmate program," Hottois said. "In fact, by expanding our enrollment, it has allowed us to improve our services for everyone."

Hottois said that after the prison program was launched, the college decided to offer classes via videotape and computer to other community members who are either homebound, work full time or live far from the campus.

"So people in Needles, a long way from our campus, are now able to take advantage of what we offer," Hottois said.

Nationally, statistics show that prisoners who earn college degrees are far less likely to return to prison once they are paroled. One Arizona study showed that prisoners who earned a two-year degree had a recidivism rate of 10%, compared with a national rate of about 60% at that time.

For years, prisoners were able to work toward college degrees through the federal Pell Grant program. But in 1994, Congress eliminated the federal scholarships, and hundreds of college programs at prisons were scrapped.

In California, San Quentin is the only other penitentiary offering a small number of convicts a chance to earn a two-year degree through a small Christian college in Oakland that uses an all-volunteer faculty. A few other universities offer correspondence courses, but inmates must pay tuition, which few can afford.

Controversy over the Ironwood program comes as Gov. Gray Davis is proposing cuts to vocational training and the few other non-employment activities that remain for prisoners. Even without such cuts, the Department of Corrections reports that its vocational and basic education classes can serve only one-quarter of the 159,000 Californians behind bars.

The move against the Ironwood program has angered Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), who praised it last year during a hearing in the Capitol.

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