Programs that prepare Louisiana inmates for post-prison careers are undergoing funding cuts because of the state’s budget problems.
In four years, dollars have dwindled more than 20 percent for programs that train inmates in welding, carpentry, cooking, mechanics and other fields.
“We’ve been able to maintain (although) I wouldn’t call it status quo,” state Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said. “We are trying to hold on to our programs.”
The budget cuts coincide with the state’s efforts to reduce recidivism, which is when inmates commit new crimes after being released. Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate per capita.
Gov. Bobby Jindal vowed earlier this year to focus more on better preparing offenders to re-enter society, saying that is a cheaper alternative to housing them behind bars if they relapse into crime.
State Rep. Gary Smith, who sits on the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, said he is concerned that falling funding for vocational training will undermine efforts to reduce recidivism.
He said many inmates come to prison with very little formal education, leaving them unprepared to go to work once they’re released. He said their lack of training contributes to the state’s recidivism rate.
“Vocational training is one of the cornerstones of the rehabilitation process,” said Smith, D-Norco.
Andrew Malloy, chief deputy superintendent at the Virginia Department of Correctional Education, said vocational training gives inmates an edge when seeking post-prison employment.
“It’s a very positive activity for the offender. Many come in without employment histories,” Malloy said. “At least they develop a job history.”
Louisiana is training more inmates with fewer dollars by eliminating pricey programs, by increasingly relying on inmates rather than paid teachers to train other inmates and by partnering with community organizations.
Still, it can be a struggle to educate inmates, who unlike their counterparts in free society do not pay tuition to learn their trades.
Popular trades, such as welding, are among the 45 programs still being taught in Louisiana prisons. However, other programs are being shut down because the dollars are not there to pay for them.
The eliminations include:
• Automotive technology at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson and Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
• Office systems technology at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel.
• Computer specialist at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
• Graphic communication at Angola.
• Diesel power technology at Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport.
• Collision repair at C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy.
Other programs were canceled because they did not meet workforce demands.
Late Saturday, after seeing advertising about this article, the governor’s spokesman, Kyle Plotkin, asked LeBlanc to mention the administration’s re-entry efforts. In a prepared statement released by Plotkin, LeBlanc said the administration has spent $6.5 million since the fiscal year that began July 1, 2009, to develop training better designed to expose “offenders to basic, fundamental life-skills and services necessary for success upon release.”
At Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, inmate James Brignac is helping save the state money by teaching other prisoners how to make cabinets. He is among 340 such tutors statewide.
Brignac is serving a 35-year sentence for forcible rape. While behind bars, he is sharing his construction skills with other inmates.
“Guys are taking something with them when they do leave,” Brignac said.
Henry Sanders, education curriculum coordinator at Elayn Hunt, said organizations like Habitat for Humanity also help trim costs.
Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable housing for the needy, provides some of the materials that inmates use to make cabinets. The finished products go into the organization’s homes.
“There’s no way we could buy all this material for them to practice on,” Sanders said.
Career training was in full swing on a recent morning at Elayn Hunt. Hammers hit nails in the carpentry shop. Sparks flew in the welding area.
Recently retired welding instructor Joseph Green said one of his graduates is making $90 an hour working on a pipeline. Green said the former inmate’s mother called to thank him.
“I’m proud of him,” he said.
Welding is one of the most popular programs at Elayn Hunt.
“This is a special group of guys,” Green said. “You have to make them feel they can do whatever the free people do.”
For some inmates, learning a career first requires getting up to speed on reading and writing.
Several rooms at Elayn Hunt are outfitted like classrooms with desks and chalkboards.
Sanders said two to three percent of inmates are illiterate.
The average reading level at the prison, LeBlanc said, is seventh grade.
The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections determines which inmates enroll in career training programs. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System is responsible for providing the funding and the teachers.
Under LeBlanc’s nearly four-year tenure as head of the state prison system, the focus has shifted to inmates nearing release. An inmate’s disciplinary record also plays a factor in enrollment.
Elayn Hunt Correctional Center Warden Howard Prince said there is a waiting list for some courses, with welding and carpentry generating the most interest.
Funding for inmate education and vocational programs has steadily dwindled amid declining revenue for the state.
In fiscal year 2008, the state spent $2.8 million to educate and train 1,560 inmates. Last fiscal year, the state spent $2.2 million to educate and train 1,645 inmates.
As a result, expensive programs involving mechanics, graphics and computers are being eliminated.
At the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, inmates have four options for career training. They can learn about culinary arts, horticulture, office systems technology or upholstery.
Joe May, head of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said higher education as a whole is suffering from funding cuts.
“All of higher education is challenged,” he said.
May added: “Are (inmates) being treated differently from anyone else? The answer is ‘No, they’re not.’”
Inmates used to be eligible for federal Pell grants, a program that provides educational aid to the needy. Congress made inmates ineligible for the program in 1994.
More recently, the state has shifted to a higher education funding model that relies more on tuition and other self-generated dollars than money provided by taxpayers that goes into the state’s general fund. Inmates do not pay tuition.
May said the changes are affecting prison programs.
He said he and other state officials are exploring whether federal funds are available, including vocational rehabilitation dollars.
LeBlanc said he feels that he is at a criminal justice crossroads trying to make a decision on whether to cut programs or to keep intact initiatives that ease inmates’ re-entry into the community.
“We’re trying to see what we can do for the capital region. There’s a lot of crime going on. We need to focus. We have to see it come to fruition,” LeBlanc said.