Inmates obtain diplomas, skills through education program

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March 6th, 2014

Omaha, NE — In a moderately sized classroom filled with tables, Teaching Assistant Billy Billups discussed the day’s lesson: converting fractions into percentages.
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Around a dozen students, all male and from various backgrounds, were studying for their high school general equivalency degree, or GED.

But it’s not a typical classroom, and at 58-years-old, Billups isn’t a typical teacher.

Billy Billups is an inmate at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. After going through it himself, he is now a teaching assistant with the adult education program. He said obtaining an education has changed his outlook on life, and now he wants to do what he can to help the younger inmates learn from their mistakes. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson/NET News)

Billy Billups is an inmate at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. After going through it himself, he is now a teaching assistant with the adult education program. He said obtaining an education has changed his outlook on life, and now he wants to do what he can to help the younger inmates learn from their mistakes. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson/NET News)

He and the students are inmates at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute, located in southeast Nebraska.

“I was convicted of robbery, use of a firearm, conspiracy to commit murder and distribution of a controlled substance,” Billups said.

When he began serving his sentence, Billups was 24-years-old. He’ll be 77 when he’s up for parole, in 2033.

Plenty of time, he said, to learn.

“Many years ago, I heard the infamous phrase, ‘the more you know the more you grow’. I’m always trying to better myself so when I get out of prison, I can stay out,” 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 Department’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, “It’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.”

Wentz said while every inmate is encouraged to enroll in the program, it’s required for those 22-years-old and younger.

Nearly 250 inmates earned their GED’s last school year. Given the circumstances, Wentz considered a 20-25 percent graduation rate a success.

“Every one of them had walked away or been kicked out of the educational opportunities they’ve had in their lives,” Wents said. “Now we have guys that are making plans beyond once they get released.”

Guys like Marcus Spencer. He’s not a student anymore, though. He’s a drafter in the prison’s wood shop.

Using sophisticated computer software, Spencer is the lead drafter in the prison’s woodshop.

In 1995, when he was 21, Spencer was convicted of second-degree murder. Just like his victim’s, he thought his life was over.

“There was no hope, just waiting for it all to end, actually,” Spencer said.

Marcus Spencer is the lead drafter in the woodshop at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. On March 2, Spencer celebrated his 40th birthday behind bars. Convicted of second-degree murder in 1996, he's not eligible for parole until 2017. He said the skills he's learned drafting designs, and the work ethic he's gained behind bars, will allow him to succeed when he goes home. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson/NET News)

Marcus Spencer is the lead drafter in the woodshop at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. On March 2, Spencer celebrated his 40th birthday behind bars. Convicted of second-degree murder in 1996, he’s not eligible for parole until 2017. He said the skills he’s learned drafting designs, and the work ethic he’s gained behind bars, will allow him to succeed when he goes home. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson/NET News)

But it didn’t end. In fact, Spencer went on to work just about every job there is in prison.

“Over time as you mature, you start to change how you think and how you feel about things. I’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,” Spencer said.

It’s estimated more than 90 percent of Nebraska’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.

It’s called recidivism, and LaSalle University Psychologist Caitlyn Taylor said it’s costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per inmate every year.

“Policing 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 don’t reoffend, this saves lots of money,” Taylor said.

But why should tax payers pay for a criminal’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 it’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.

“I 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,” Taylor said.

Inmates like Travis Pierce said that training is already paying off for him.

Travis Pierce, left, assists another inmate in physical therapy. Pierce is a porter in the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute's medical unit. As a convicted felon, Pierce will be unable to earn any kind of medical licensing. However, Pierce said the empathy and compassion he's gained caring for others will translate to many areas of his life once he is released. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson/NET News)

Travis Pierce, left, assists another inmate in physical therapy. Pierce is a porter in the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute’s medical unit. As a convicted felon, Pierce will be unable to earn any kind of medical licensing. However, Pierce said the empathy and compassion he’s gained caring for others will translate to many areas of his life once he is released. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson/NET News)

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.

“It offers a clear understanding of words like empathy, and it means a lot when you have someone looking up at you and saying ‘thank you’ for helping them do something that they are not able to do for themselves,” 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 he’s learning behind bars will keep him out of prison for the rest of his life.

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