Prison school’s defenders say cuts would hurt mission

NEWPORT, Vt. (AP) — Thousands of former inmates can claim the Community High School of Vermont as their alma mater, the place they received the education allowing them to become productive citizens upon their release from prison. But like any other school, the one run by the state’s Department of Corrections is facing the prospect of big budget cuts.

The state offers high school diplomas and job training — for careers in the construction trades, the food industry and other fields — at all seven state prisons and 10 other sites connected to probation and parole offices but would downsize the operation under a proposal from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office.

By limiting the school to just four prisons — Newport, St. Albans, South Burlington and Springfield — Shumlin’s office says the state would save more than $2 million.

The program has seen declining enrollment, from 138 diplomas awarded in fiscal 2007 to 41 last year, Shumlin and his aides say. Still, it maintains a staff of 45 teachers.

“The incarcerated population has been aging in recent years, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of students attending CHSVT classes,” Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said.

But the program’s supporters say inmates’ needs for training extend well beyond the under-23 population who are legally required to be offered an education when they are incarcerated.

“There were 333 industry certificates” — training credentials for specific jobs — “awarded during the last year,” said George Cross, a former state representative from Winooski who chairs the Community’s High School’s advisory board.

“That’s probably more important to people leaving the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections in terms of getting a job than even the high school diploma is,” Cross added.

Many older inmates arrive in the corrections system with extremely limited reading, writing and math skills and need basic education before they are even ready for high school, prison educators Harmony Harriman and Bill Storz said in a group interview with teachers at the Newport prison.

“Are we a warehousing organization, or are we truly invested in helping to facilitate rehabilitation, positive change in the inmates that are in our care?” Storz wrote later in an email. “Is our mission just words, or are we going to invest in best practices to achieve it?”

One big supporter of the program is Mike Lamos, 30, of St. Albans. As a teenager he “got into exploring the drugs a little too deeply and hanging out with people I shouldn’t have,” Lamos said. That road led to a conviction for assault and robbery and four years at the Newport prison.

He enrolled in the Community High School and emerged from prison in 2006 with a high school diploma and a year’s worth of training as an apprentice electrician under his belt. Now a journeyman in the trade, Lamos said he expects to get his master’s license this spring. He plans to get married later this year.

“It’s a crying shame what they’re doing. That education should never be stripped from anybody,” Lamos said. “It’s one of the most powerful tools there is for rehabilitation.”

Shumlin and legislative budget writers have been struggling to close a gap in which needs for state funding have been projected to outstrip revenues in the fiscal year starting July 1 by about $112 million.

Shumlin, who has fought proposals to raise the state’s income, sales and other broad-based taxes through his first four years in office, is relenting a bit this year. He’s proposed reducing the budget gap by $15.5 million by eliminating the ability for taxpayers who itemize to deduct the previous year’s state income taxes from their taxable income.

Shumlin acknowledged at a news conference this past week that many people are pained by a range of planned cuts, but repeated a refrain he has been striking repeatedly in recent weeks. “If you have an idea that is better than ours that saves a similar amount of money, we’re all ears,” he said.

Stephen Steurer, executive director of the Maryland-based Correctional Education Association, said such programs are “easy targets” for states looking for budget cuts because criminal offenders have very little political clout. He pointed to a 2014 Rand Corp. study saying states that spend on educating offenders save bigger amounts of money through reduced recidivism and higher employment of former inmates.

Cutting such programs is “financially idiotic,” Steurer said.

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