Education in NC prisons is top of the class

Behind the wire fences and locked gates at the New Hanover County Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility inmates and staff call “the camp,” there lies a koi pond flanked on both sides by elevated soil beds filled with an array of organically grown produce – carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and even medicinal herbs. Toward the rear of the garden, a greenhouse contains even more plants surrounded by benches and lined with rows of germinating seeds.

On Thursday, Garrett Toelle, inmate No. 1179312, spotted a pea pod dangling off a plant and picked it. He split it open and handed it to a reporter, saying it would taste better than any pea found in the grocery store.

“I know that this is definitely not a place that I’ll be coming back to,” the 26-year-old said. “But at least I learned something while I was here.”

One thing he learned: what his food looks like before it hits the store shelves. “I didn’t know lettuce makes a flower,” he said, pointing to a lettuce blossom rising a foot or more from its soil bed.

This is the prison’s horticulture program, one of dozens if not hundreds of education and vocational courses equipping inmates statewide with job skills they can use on the outside to land employment. Beneficial for inmates like Toelle, North Carolina is unique in its pursuit of these kinds of teaching opportunities. In fact, a recent report recognized North Carolina as one of only 13 states that makes inmate education a priority, a designation state prison officials hope to enjoy for decades to come.

“We have them as a captured audience,” said Jennie Lancaster, chief deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Correction, which manages the state’s prison system. “The community is far better served when that inmate is released if that inmate has a GED, can read and write to fill out an employment application, and if that inmate has a skill where they can be a day-worker.”

But the state faces challenges. Embroiled in a dismal economic era where legislators – and voters – seem to be thinking in terms of budget austerity, North Carolina might be forced to pare back its inmate education programs.

Jennifer Haygood, vice president of business and finance at the N.C. Community College System, the network of state-funded institutions that has traditionally provided in-prison vocational courses, said the draft budget recently unveiled in the state House restructures funding in a way that officials expect to face a $2.9 million shortfall in financing inmate education if the proposal is adopted.

Some officials say it is too early to tell, given that a final budget has yet to be adopted, just how the final funding amounts will shake out. But the financial crisis raises some measure of uncertainty about whether the state has the stomach to pay for inmate education at traditional levels down the road. Even as supporters attempt to shield the programs from cuts, lawmakers face the difficult task of plugging a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall and are slashing spending in several areas.

“Those programs are always the first to go, unfortunately, because they’re either run by volunteers or they’re funded through softer money in the prison budget,” said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center who has studied prison education programs extensively.

Inmate education proponents hope budget cuts bypass prison programs, and not just in North Carolina. These supporters point to research showing that investing in education and vocational courses, particularly postsecondary education, on the front end saves big money in the long run by reducing recidivism and bolstering public safety.

A recent study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit that aims to expand postsecondary education access worldwide, appeared to underscore that point.

The study found that among 45 states that responded to a survey, only 71,000 inmates – or about 6 percent of the national prison population – were enrolled in postsecondary education courses for the 2009-10 academic year. North Carolina ranked among the 13 states with the highest enrollment numbers. (The study did not examine inmates in GED and basic education programs that improve literacy).

Still, prison programs have sometimes been tough to sell publicly, particularly during grim economic times where governments are exploring the potential for mass layoffs and deep public education cuts.

The study noted that inmates have experienced difficulty paying for college courses since the Clinton administration closed off access to Pell Grants in 1994, contending that awarding such monies to prisoners restricted the amount available to nonprisoners. The U.S. Department of Education has continued supplying grants to states to finance some postsecondary education in prison, but because of federal budget cutting, that funding is scheduled to stop flowing July 1, officials said.

High school diploma, basic education and vocational programs where graduates earn certificates in a specific trade make up the bulk of what prisons offer nationwide. In North Carolina, the General Assembly has primarily funded those programs through the state community college system.

Beyond certificate courses, Shaw University offers some classes for inmates seeking two- and four-year degrees, but those efforts are mostly grant funded, said Pamela Walker, director of external affairs for the N.C. Department of Correction.

Brian Sponslor, a co-author of the study and a research analyst at the Institute, said public awareness needed to be broadened so taxpayers understood the long-term benefits of these programs.

“Those are difficult conversations, but local policy makers are going to have to have them with their constituents,” he said.

If next year’s budget forces North Carolina’s inmates to pay for their own education, it would mark a majorshift in how courses are delivered to prisons and likely restrict eligibility.

For decades, the community college system has waived tuition on the grounds that most inmates lack the means to pay the bills, Haygood said. In the 2009-10 academic year, the system waived about $7 million in tuition costs.

The proposed House budget would eliminate that waiver and set up a formula where the community college system would have to allocate a certain amount of money to the N.C. Department of Correction based on the number of students the system serves. That money, in turn, would be used to cover inmates’ tuition costs.

Officials estimate that if the formula goes into effect, the community college system will give between $4.1 and $4.2 million to the correction department, or up to $2.9 million less than the system waived during the last academic year, Haygood said.

“Unless DOC or the inmates themselves can supplement that pot of money, there will likely be a reduction in programming,” she added.

The prospect of diminished funding is a difficult pill for some to swallow.

Luckily for Toelle, the burly inmate with short, dark hair in New Hanover County’s horticulture program, is scheduled for release Thursday after spending five months in prison for misdemeanor assault and drug charges.

A Marine who served two tours in Iraq, Toelle said he hoped to leverage the skills he picked up in prison to earn employment and maybe launch his own business. The program’s instructor, Michael Johnson, said he has witnessed plenty of inmates turn around and do good for themselves.

“Gardening is a therapeutic pursuit and something that connects you with nature and makes you feel less separate from the world around you,” he said. Plus, “food is one commodity everybody will buy.”

Every one of the 400 or so inmates housed at New Hanover County Correctional is on the verge of release, making finding them a job all the more imperative. Many of them will have to surmount difficult obstacles to stay out of prison. Roughly 30 or 40 percent will return within three years, officials say.

On Thursday, a van pulled up to the prison carrying inmates who just returned from a local fast food restaurant to apply for jobs. A few moments later, a bus drove up to the gate hauling prisoners returning from their jobs at a nearby chicken processing plant. Inside, students studied horticulture, computer maintenance and other trades.

“Just warehousing an inmate is the worst thing we can do,” said Enoch Hasberry III, the prison’s assistant superintendant for programs. “Do you think they’re going to hire a felon with no skills?”

Brian Freskos: 343-2327

On Twitter: @BrianFreskos

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