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Educating Utah inmates costs more than other adults, with payoff uncertain

Published August 2, 2012 8:19 am

Audit • Utahns who aren't locked up get less on a per-student basis.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Providing inmates with educational services is viewed as one way to keep them from returning to prison, but a newly released audit says the Utah State Office of Education is spending more money per student providing academic services to inmates than it does on traditional adult education clients and has little data to show how academic achievement boosts job prospects or reduces recidivism.

The audit also found some inmates take hundreds of hours of classes with little to show for it, while others continue in educational programs even after earning a diploma or certificate — resources auditors said could be used to help other inmates or funneled into other programs.

In one program, an inmate student achieved only one level gain after more than 1,000 "contact" hours. Another inmate student who received a diploma, notching a high GPA, had more than 3,000 contact hours but still tested at a first grade level in math, which allowed the inmate to continue receiving educational services.

Better monitoring is needed, an auditor told the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Wednesday.

"We question the value of a diploma awarded with a high GPA when the student continues to function at such low levels," auditors said in the report. "Programs should not be designed to take longer, simply because an inmate has more time available. Not only is there a disparity of contact hours between jail, prison, and traditional adult education, but some inmate programs have what appears to be an excessive number of contact hours."

Lawmakers asked auditors to look at the effectiveness and efficiency of high school education programs — adult high school education, adult basic education and English language classes — offered at Utah's jails and prisons. They also asked the Utah Department of Corrections to prepare a report on the impact of education programs on recidivism, a study that is still in process.

Last year, 21 local school districts, under direction of the Utah State Office of Education, provided educational services to some 5,268 inmates at 23 jails and both state prison locations. The amount spent on the programs in 2011: $5.4 million, money that came primarily from the USOE's adult education budget and the Utah Department of Corrections' education fund.

Auditors said that because of the formula used by the state office to distribute adult education funds, it ends up allocating $346 per enrollee in traditional adult education programs but $512 per enrolled inmate. The inmate program appears to get a funding advantage because "they are able to control attendance and measure inmate progress," the audit said, thus showing better academic outcomes — a primary factor in the funding formula.

"In our opinion, inmate programs should not draw proportionally more of the adult education funds simply because inmates are more available to attend classes," the audit states. "By spending more on inmates, fewer funds are available for the traditional adult education program."

Auditors recommended that the USOE modify the distribution formula to make it more fair. They also recommended the state take a look at how educational resources and funds are split between prisons and jails. They said jails do a more efficient job delivering academic services, handing out more diplomas and General Equivalency Degrees (GED).

While a nearly equal number of inmates in jails and prisons receive educational services each year, prisons received twice as much funding on a per student basis as jails — $1,330 versus $653. Susan Verhoef, an audit supervisor, told the committee that discrepancy is due "almost entirely" to the $2 million Corrections education fund being distributed only to the Draper and Gunnison prisons.

The audit recommended that those funds be shared with jails, particularly since many contract with the prison to house inmates. It also found that as far as proportion of degrees awarded, jail programs outperformed prison programs.

"Prison programs spend twice as much per enrolled student as jail programs do but do not demonstrate any additional benefit," the report said.

Reviewers also recommended that the Corrections Education fund, currently split based on overall population at the Draper and Gunnison prisons, be allocated to the two facilities based on student enrollment. That would increase the amount of money flowing to the educational programs at the Draper facility, which in 2011 had 68 percent of students but received 59 percent of funds.

The report says a prison program director pointed out that jails focus on helping inmates get a General Equivalency Degree (GED) while prisons issue more adult high school diplomas. The high school diplomas take longer to complete, the unidentified director said, but are more valuable in the job market.

Prison administrators attributed the longer times prison inmates spend earning credits, certificates and diplomas to the fact those students are "at a lower functioning level."

But auditors said in the report their evaluation did not support that claim, pointing to national studies that show the functional level of inmates at jails and prisons is about the same.

The auditors said determining the benefit of prison educational programs — such as improved job prospects, which likely decreases recidivism — is difficult because so many inmates remain incarcerated after getting degrees. Because of that, auditors recommended that officials give priority to inmates who are set to be released within five years of participating in an educational program — something already required of federal funds and a policy followed for vocational programs.

"Education is beneficial only when inmates will soon be available for employment," the audit states.Auditors said no good state data exists about how inmates who get an education while in prison fare in the job market after being released, or for comparing them to inmates who do not earn a diploma or certificate. While other studies have shown that while education is important, work experience may be a bigger factor in an inmate's employment success. The report recommended that Corrections and the state Office of Education partner to evaluate how education affects an inmate's later employment success.

Prison administrators responded that education programs have another benefit, however, in helping to "manage the incarcerated population by keeping inmates engaged and diverting problem behavior." Inmates also get "good behavior" credit for participating in such programs.

In a letter included in the audit, state education superintendent Larry K. Shumway said the audit's recommendations were "both well-reasoned and timely. We will use this audit as a catalyst for change and look forward to improvements in corrections education and adult education as a result."

Brenda Hales, associate superintendent, told the audit subcommittee that the funding formula was adopted before Corrections began placing inmates at county jails and it may be "reasonable to switch things around."

brooke@sltrib.com