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Report: More data, tracking needed on prison education efforts

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

While the Legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey this session put more money toward prison education programs and incentivized participation for some with earlier release, the state is not doing enough to track what programs are actually helping offenders find jobs and stay out of prison, a recent report says.

Meanwhile, there are still significant barriers to accessing prison education programs, the report from the Alabama Commission on Evaluation of Services said.

“The state is not tracking the necessary performance metrics to determine if our educational efforts are working for our population,” Marcus Morgan, ACES director, told Alabama Daily News. “We should know and we can know.”

The commission was created in 2019 to assess the effectiveness of various state programs. Lawmakers have increased correctional education gradually in recent years. The 2022 state education budget has about $15.5 million for prison education, including some post-release programs.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is chairman of the commission. He said the lack of data outlined in the report needs to be corrected.

“(We don’t have the information) to conclude that prison education has been successful across the board,” Orr said. “We have our assumptions, but we don’t have the hard data to back it up.”

While ACES found a modest decrease in recidivism for inmates receiving Career Technical Education, the report said “…there is little tangible evidence of collaboration between (the Alabama Department of Corrections, the Alabama Community College System and some provider institutions) to track or analyze recidivism or employment outcomes.”

In a written response published with the report, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the above statement was “nonfactual” and said there have been an abundance of meetings between ADOC and ACCS staff related to prison education. He said more data will be beneficial and said he was proud of recent efforts to improve education within ADOC.

“…The enhancement and prioritization of inmate education is one of the four overarching agency goals established in the ADOC’s Strategic Plan 2019-2022 and is also an area I am personally very passionate about,” Dunn wrote.

The report also found:

  • Since 2012, the fall to spring persistence rates — the inmates who enroll in fall and spring coursework — have declined an average of 2.4% per year. More information is needed, but that decline drives the cost of delivery higher.
  • From 2012 through 2018, provider institutions have consistently served between 7 and 9% percent of the total in-custody population.
  • More than half of the ADOC in-custody prison population in 2019 lacked the equivalent of a high school diploma. The average inmate education level for the entire population was the 10th grade.
  • Fifteen of the state’s community colleges offer adult basic education programs in prisons, five offer career technical education coursework at 10 correctional facilities.
  • While no ACCS schools offer post-secondary programs to help earn an associate’s degree, Ashland University Correctional Education will have a distance-learning program at North Alabama Work Center near Decatur in the fall semester of 2021 through a contract with ADOC.
  • ADOC and provider institutions do not have an effective tool for the timely tracking of post-release employment data to show the employability of former inmates.

“Understanding correctional education’s effectiveness on strengthening Alabama’s post-release employability is important because there were 11,449 offenders as of December 2019 with an average age of 40 and a sentence of ten years or less,” the report said.

Dunn also said the limitations identified in the report are consistent with prisons’ “aging infrastructure and the previous philosophy that did not include classroom prioritization has led to lacking space for delivery…” New facilities would help address that issue.

Dunn was a supporter of the recently approved Senate Bill 323, the Alabama Education Incentive Time Act. It will allow offenders within the ADOC to get up to 12 months reduced from their sentences if they complete an ADOC-approved academic, vocational, risk-reducing or apprenticeship program.

“The individual must have a desire to be educated to be successful,” Dunn wrote.

The Associated Press reported this week that the incentive will be offered to a small percentage of inmates.

The bill by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, requires ADOC to provide quarterly reports on the number of prisoners eligible for the program, participation, the recidivism rate for those released early under the program and post-release employment.

Meanwhile, another Chambliss bill in the most recent session, Senate Bill 221, will create a study commission charged with developing “a strategic plan to make communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization and assist individuals who return from prison to become productive citizens…”

It will be chaired by Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Director Cam Ward. Ward said the commission will bring together all state agencies that provide rehab and education services to prison populations.

“We’ll be talking about one, how to stop overlapping of services and two, how to gather better data on what works and what doesn’t,” said Ward, who agreed with the problems outlined in the ACES’ report.

Ward, a former lawmaker who was appointed to Pardons and Paroles last year by the governor, said one issue he sees is a “spotty availability of programs” within prisons.

For example, welding programs are popular and have proven to lower recidivism rates, Ward said. But their availability is limited.

“We’ve got to get the logistics worked out to make sure (education programs) are offered all over the state,” Ward said.

Rachel Bunning, a spokeswoman for the ACCS, said the system supports the expansion of data-sharing and reporting to better track education outcomes and recidivism rates.

“These efforts cannot be done in a silo and will require us working alongside the Alabama Department of Corrections, Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, and the Alabama Department of Labor to effectively follow our justice-involved students as they leave our programs and eventually re-enter society,” Bunning told Alabama Daily News.

Possible Pell Grants

The ACES report also said new rules to soon allow inmates easier access to Pell Grants is an option the state should consider.

Orr said the Pell Grant possibility is one the state also needs to explore, using that money instead of the state’s to fund more education within prisons.

“Us being the payer of second resort would stretch our state dollars to have a more meaningful impact,” Orr said.

Bunning said it was too soon to say whether the expansion of Pell will have any significant impact on programs or participants because ACCS does not yet know what the guidelines will be for eligibility and implementation.

The ACCS and our colleges that serve corrections populations are always eager to serve additional students through our programs and will be ready and willing to provide education and training to these students if interest increases due to the lifted ban on Pell grant eligibility, Bunning said.

Orr said the possibility of apprenticeships and incentives for employers who hire the formerly incarcerated is something to be considered.

“If we can keep them out of prison and get them set up in a good, money producing job, then they can support themselves and not be back in prison after committing another crime and we’ve saved serious money,” Orr said. “We’d have to make sure those jobs pay a decent salary. I don’t think we do ourselves any favors to give an incentive to an employer to pay minimum wage to a former inmate and think the inmate is going to be able to survive on a $7.25 an hour job. We need to set them up for success.”

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