Inmates obtain diplomas, skills through education program
March 6th, 2014
Omaha, NE –Â In a moderately sized classroom filled with tables, Teaching Assistant Billy Billups discussed the dayâ€™s lesson: converting fractions into percentages.
Around a dozen students, all male and from various backgrounds, were studying for their high school general equivalency degree, or GED.
But itâ€™s not a typical classroom, and at 58-years-old, Billups isnâ€™t a typical teacher.
He and the students are inmates at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute, located in southeast Nebraska.
â€œI was convicted of robbery, use of a firearm, conspiracy to commit murder and distribution of a controlled substance,â€ Billups said.
When he began serving his sentence, Billups was 24-years-old. Heâ€™ll be 77 when heâ€™s up for parole, in 2033.
Plenty of time, he said, to learn.
â€œMany years ago, I heard the infamous phrase, â€˜the more you know the more you growâ€™. Iâ€™m always trying to better myself so when I get out of prison, I can stay out,â€ Billups explained.
As of January, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services was responsible for a little more than 4900 inmates. About a fourth of them are in the Departmentâ€™s Adult Education Program.
It costs tax payers around $2.5 million a year, but Mark Wentz, the adult education principal for Correctional Services said, â€œItâ€™s a pre-investment. The majority of [inmates] are going to be out in 3-5 years. We want to make sure they can function in society.â€
Wentz said while every inmate is encouraged to enroll in the program, itâ€™s required for those 22-years-old and younger.
Nearly 250 inmates earned their GEDâ€™s last school year. Given the circumstances, Wentz considered a 20-25 percent graduation rate a success.
â€œEvery one of them had walked away or been kicked out of the educational opportunities theyâ€™ve had in their lives,â€ Wents said. â€œNow we have guys that are making plans beyond once they get released.â€
Guys like Marcus Spencer. Heâ€™s not a student anymore, though. Heâ€™s a drafter in the prisonâ€™s wood shop.
Using sophisticated computer software, Spencer is the lead drafter in the prisonâ€™s woodshop.
In 1995, when he was 21, Spencer was convicted of second-degree murder. Just like his victimâ€™s, he thought his life was over.
â€œThere was no hope, just waiting for it all to end, actually,â€ Spencer said.
But it didnâ€™t end. In fact, Spencer went on to work just about every job there is in prison.
â€œOver time as you mature, you start to change how you think and how you feel about things. Iâ€™ve used [my jobs] as a way to get some work ethic and learn some new skills, because I plan on going home eventually and I want to succeed once I get out there,â€ Spencer said.
Itâ€™s estimated more than 90 percent of Nebraskaâ€™s inmates will be released at some point, but with little education and no real job skills, a quarter of those released will wind up back behind bars within three years.
Itâ€™s called recidivism, and LaSalle University Psychologist Caitlyn Taylor said itâ€™s costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per inmate every year.
â€œPolicing costs, court system costs, and finally and most expensive is the incarceration costs. So if we can keep someone from returning to prison because they donâ€™t reoffend, this saves lots of money,â€ Taylor said.
But why should tax payers pay for a criminalâ€™s education? After all, why should a convicted felon receive a free education, when law abiding citizens are forced to pay out of pocket, or take out loans?
Taylor calls this the Principle of Lesser Eligibility, and at a time when budgets are tight and some school districts are scaling back, Taylor said she knows itâ€™s not easy convincing critics of the merits of inmate education.
But according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, inmates who receive some form of education are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.
The study also showed for every dollar spent on education, five dollars is saved in re-incarceration costs.
â€œI think once people understand the financial nature of this. That can really help convince people that providing education and providing job training pays off in the long run,â€ Taylor said.
Inmates like Travis Pierce said that training is already paying off for him.
Convicted of robbery in 2010, Pierce now works as a porter in the medical unit at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. He helps disabled inmates, which he said allows him to give back on a daily basis.
â€œIt offers a clear understanding of words like empathy, and it means a lot when you have someone looking up at you and saying â€˜thank youâ€™ for helping them do something that they are not able to do for themselves,â€ Pierce said.
Pierce will be eligible for parole in 2017, and just like other inmates enrolled in these training programs, he said he hopes what heâ€™s learning behind bars will keep him out of prison for the rest of his life.
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