Classes behind bars

Aug. 11, 2014 @ 04:52 PM

A young man or woman accused of a crime in Durham County can land in jail for months awaiting trial.

He or she may well have dropped out of school. And the resulting lack of marketable skills or a high-school diploma, that minimal credential for even most low-paying jobs, may have contributed to the encounter with the judicial system in the first place.

Or the defendant may have been struggling to keep up with school work, determined to plow through obstacles of difficult home environment, low socio-economic status, poor instruction in early grades – or all of those, and more. 

We know that educational deficiencies and poor-to-nonexistent employment prospects contribute to what one federal report caustically referred to as the “catch-and-release” cycle in which inmates are far too likely to return to jail.

“Most of the nearly 700,000 state prisoners released each year are ill equipped to meet the challenges of reentering society,” observed the 2009 report, “Partnerships Between Community Colleges and Prisons.”

“More than two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested within three years of leaving prison,” the report said, “and almost half are reincarcerated because they are lacking marketable skills, are burdened by a criminal record that makes them ineligible to be hired in many occupations, and have few supports to make transitions to society.”

The report’s title is ironic in North Carolina because four years ago the General Assembly abruptly barred the state’s community colleges from providing education to inmates in county jails, although the community colleges continue to be involved with state prison inmates.

In Durham, with some prodding, the sheriff’s department, which runs the jail, is designing a pilot program to use the inmate welfare fund to offer adult basic education and high-school-equivalency courses in the jail.

Victoria Peterson, a local activist who frequently addresses jail issues, put it succinctly to The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg: “They are locking up kids for several years and there is no educational system in that jail for kids under 18.” The pilot program would provide classes for inmates in the jail aged 16 to 24.

The legislature’s action in 2010 to halt community college efforts in county jails followed a Civitas Institute report that challenged the value of the classes and argued that in tight budget times “there should be no money to spare for educating criminals who have violated the laws of our society.”

As Gronberg pointed out in a story Sunday, that argument “presumes the guilt of those benefiting from the classes.” Many jail inmates are awaiting trial – presumed innocent and, in fact, often found not guilty when their day in court arrives.

Given all the benefits to providing some instruction to inmates, it is commendable that the sheriff’s department is stepping up to fill the void the General Assembly unwisely created.