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Budget Cuts Threaten Prison Literacy Program

More than 300 teachers face layoffs despite law that inmates must be taught to read at the ninth-grade level.

May 16, 2003|Jenifer Warren and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — California's budget crisis will probably force prison officials to lay off 330 educators in the coming year, undermining efforts to teach inmates to read at the ninth-grade level as state law requires, corrections officials said Thursday.

The layoffs, announced in a May 9 memo from Corrections Director Edward S. Alameida, would cut the prison education staff by 20%, further shrinking academic and vocational offerings behind bars.

Already, thousands of inmates are on waiting lists for courses in basic education, literacy or one of 46 trades, from welding to air-conditioning repair. At current staffing levels, prison officials say they can provide access to such courses for one-fourth of California's 159,000 convicts.

While layoff notices have not yet been sent, the memo from Alameida called them a certainty because of a $39.4-million cut to the prison education program in Gov. Gray Davis' budget proposal. The ax is hitting education, corrections officials say, because other expenditures are more vital to the penal system.

Difficult Choices

"Our primary mission is the safety and security of the institutions," said spokesman Russ Heimerich. "Ideally, we would prefer to have every inmate enrolled in education, but we're facing difficult choices here."

Heimerich said the department will try to protect literacy classes from the layoffs, citing the state law directing the department to bring all prisoners up to a ninth-grade reading level. He acknowledged, however, that some impact on literacy programs may be unavoidable.

The threatened prison layoffs are separate from the governor's broader contingency plan to eventually dismiss 8,000 to 10,000 state employees unless their unions help the state achieve $855 million in budget savings by renegotiating their contracts.

The memo alerting the staff to layoffs comes shortly after Alameida told aides that he was considering saving money by ending state supervision of parolees and cutting mental health care for felons who have been released. Those plans have been put on hold.

With 33 prisons, the massive Department of Corrections has an annual budget that hovers around $5 billion. Unable to keep costs from escalating, however, prison officials have been forced in recent years to ask the Legislature to authorize additional spending. Last year, prison officials sought an additional $200 million.

Wendy Still, the prison official who oversees the budget, said the department is "slowly starting to address some of the structural budget issues" that have led to the shortfalls.

In his revised budget, the governor predicts that the penal system will need an additional $115.4 million this year, pushing the adult prison budget to $5.3 billion. In part, the money will pay for increased numbers of prisoners. But about $70 million is for unanticipated overtime, workers' compensation and temporary help.

For the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, the net increase is expected to be $24 million above the $5.2-billion estimate the governor made in his January budget proposal.

Other Cutbacks

The increase would be even steeper, except that Davis has proposed several cost-cutting steps, including delaying the launch of a treatment program for 500 drug addicts and a mental health program at Salinas Valley State Prison. He also is suggesting postponing the opening of a new prison at Delano until 2005.

Experts who study inmate education describe the proposed prison education layoffs as a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to public policy. In California, the average prisoner reads at the seventh-grade level, and thousands have not completed high school.

Numerous studies have shown that inmates who receive some education are more likely to find jobs when they are freed, and less likely to commit new crimes.

"These people are going to get released sooner or later, so prison education is vitally important in terms of transforming lives," said Thom Gehring, director of the Center for the Study of Correctional Education at Cal State San Bernardino. "If a prisoner starts to view himself as a student rather than a criminal, everyone benefits."

Teachers at several prisons said educators throughout the state were on edge, wondering when the layoff notices would hit -- and who would lose their job.

"Rumors are flying, and we have a lot of scared people right now," said Nick Martinez, who teaches computer repair courses at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.

Keith Wimer, who teaches third- through seventh-grade coursework to inmates at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, said instructors were particularly upset because they believe their efforts save the state money in years ahead.

"By keeping inmates from returning [to prison], we're saving taxpayers the $27,000 a year it costs to house them," Wimer said. "We also keep the prisons running more smoothly. If inmates have something to do and feel good about themselves, they are less likely to cause problems."

Wimer said leaders of the California State Employees Assn., the union representing prison educators, are seeking help from legislators, who still must vote on Davis' budget. Some legislators expressed support for the instructors.

"The last thing we ought to be talking about cutting is education for inmates," said Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando), who is carrying legislation aimed at strengthening teaching behind bars.

Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk), who was a parole officer before winning his seat, said he backs limits on programs for inmates serving life sentences, but believes in educating those with short or medium terms.

"We must commit to educational programs for nonviolent offenders," Bermudez said. "We need to prepare individuals who are going to be released."

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