Education program for jail inmates in works
Sheriff’s deputies are working to launch a pilot program this fall to provide adult basic education and GED classes for inmates in the Durham County Jail aged 16 to 24.
The move comes as Sheriff Mike Andrews and the County Commissioners face some heat from local activists who say officials should make it possible for youthful inmates to continue their education while they’re behind bars.
“They’re locking up kids for several years and there is no educational system in that jail for kids under 18,” said Victoria Peterson, a frequent candidate in local elections who often speaks to officials about criminal-justice issues.
Durham County Sheriff’s Office administrators acknowledge that there’s validity to the complaint, as the jail now only makes sure youthful inmates who are also special-needs students can continue the “individual education plan” Durham Public Schools has set up for them.
That’s a legal mandate, and beyond it, “there’s been no effort” until work on the pilot program began, said Brian Jones, the sheriff’s operations and development manager.
He added that local governments are having to step into a void created by the state, which once allowed the N.C. Community College System to offer instruction to the inmates of county jails.
The Community College System is out of the picture now because the N.C. General Assembly in 2010 said it can only use money appropriated for the education of inmates on those housed in state prisons.
That law at a stroke cut county jails and federal prisons out of the mix. Any courses there “may be offered on a self-supporting basis” only, it said.
The General Assembly’s decision came while both chambers were still under Democratic Party control, but the clampdown had bipartisan support.
A leading North Carolina conservative group, the Civitas Institute, in 2010 argued that “there should be no money to spare for educating criminals who have violated the laws of our society” when budget problems make teacher layoffs a possibility.
The Civitas article presumed the guilt of all those benefitting from the classes. County jails typically house people who can’t make bail while they’re awaiting trial.
Because of the state’s stance, “counties are now on their own” when it comes to arranging instruction for inmates, Jones said.
Jones singled out Mecklenburg County’s jail as an example of where local authorities have stepped in to fill the gap. It’s hired a contractor to come in and offer instruction.
In Durham, Andrews and his staff figure to pay for the pilot program out of the jail’s inmate welfare fund, which in turn gets it money from “inmate commissary purchases,” Jones said.
Commissioners encouraged the effort, in hopes of cutting recidivism.
“We’ve got to stop the revolving door, and one of the best ways is through education,” Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.