Monday, March 21, 2011

Vocational ed boosts ex-offender employment: The counterargument to cuts at Windham School District

At the Fort Worth Strartlegram, Jill "J.R." Labbe takes aim at the Senate Finance Committee's call for cutting prison education programs at the Windham School District. Her column closes with a response to Sen. Florence Shapiro's challenge to justify spending on prisoners' education when schools are closing and teachers losing their jobs because of free-world budget cuts:
"When we're cutting funding for public schools and furloughing thousands of school employees, they're going to have to convince us why they should receive any continued funding," Shapiro was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman.

Let the convincing commence.

On a pure dollars-and-sense level, the state loses money. Lester Meriwether, who serves on the Governor's Interagency Literacy Council and is past president of Literacy Texas, said a portion of the allocation to the Windham school district counts as part of the state match for federal dollars to the overall adult education program.

Not enough? How about the Justice Department report that says the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure. More than 70 percent of the inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. Trust me when I say Texas is no exception to that statistic.

Penal institution records show that recidivism rates for those who receive no education while incarcerated are almost 75 percent. Compare that to the 16 to 25 percent rate for offenders who receive literacy and vocational assistance.

The inmates who today are choosing to take classes can learn skills that put them on a road to productivity when they are released, or they can learn from their fellow cons how not to get caught the next time they burglarize your house or steal your car. Which will it be, Texas?
The point about federal matching funds is a excellent one that didn't come up in press accounts of discussions in the Senate Finance Committee on the topic. Indeed, as I understand it, accessing such funds is the reason Windham is organized as its own separate school district in the first place.

To be fair to would-be budget cutters, some of Labbe's arguments don't hold water: If recidivism rates for Windham School District participants were as greatly reduced as the (source-free, non-Texas specific) statistics she cited, there'd be little problem justifying the expense. However, according to the Austin Statesman, citing Sen. Shapiro, "The recidivism rates for graduates of some Windham programs were not much better than for other convicts."

That said, despite Sen. Shapiro's comments, to my knowledge, TDCJ can't actually provide recidivism rates for participants in Windham programs. A January 2011 report (large pdf, p. 15) on Windham from the Legislative Budget Board stated that the agency is currently "developing a plan to compute recidivism rates of participants in and graduates of the agency’s programs, as well as exploring strategies to compare these recidivism rates with those of the general TDCJ population and to assess the savings produced by any reduction in the recidivism rates related to these programs." So if they're "developing a plan to compute" those rates, that tells me recidivism rates are not being computed right now.

Also, recidivism rates in Texas are already far lower than in other states because we tend to incarcerate more low-risk offenders who were unlikely to commit more serious crimes in the first place. So recidivism reduction could never be as dramatic as what Labbe cites because Texas' overall three-year recidivism rate hovers at about 28%, roughly half the national average. (See this LBB report - large pdf.) When recidivism rates start out so much lower, any reduction will be less significant, by definition.

Though we can't speak with certainty about recidivism, something TDCJ has tracked systematically are employment outcomes for Windham graduates, and there the program can point to legitimately positive results. From the LBB report (p. 22)
  • In the Prison and State Jail Group, 49% of the Windham vocational completers and 52.3% of the college vocational completers were employed within one year of release compared to 36.7% of the offenders who did not receive vocational training.
  • In comparison to the 2009 study, some slippage is indicated with respect to the percentage employed. For example, for the Prison and State Jail Group, the percentage of employed offenders in the Windham vocational completion group decreased from 59% in 2009 to 49% in 2010. The percentage of employed offenders in the College vocational completion group decreased from 67.8% in 2009 to 52.3% in 2010. However, since the percentage of employed offenders in the non-vocational group also decreased (from 46.8% to 36.7%), it is believed that the slippage may be a reflection of the current economic conditions and record high unemployment rates throughout the country. 
  • In the Prison and State Jail Group, 76.6% of the Windham vocational completers and 75.5% of the college vocational completers who were employed earned income working in an occupation related to their vocational training.
Grits would not attribute recent drops in employment success to failures in the programming, necessarily, because the time period where decreases occurred coincided with the onset of the current recession, when everyone (your correspondent included) had more trouble finding jobs. The percentage of employed ex-offenders among Windham participants was still more than 13 points higher than those who received no vocational training. That strikes me as a significant difference.

Further, those who complete vocational training in prison, LBB found, tend to have higher salaries upon release, according to a study of prisoners who exited state custody in 2008. Those who completed Windham programs averaged $9,384 per year in wages compared to $8,128 for those who did not participate. Another notable finding: Most offenders who enter vocational programming complete it, but those who drop out while in prison are at especially high risk of failing to find a job when they get out. Prisoners who enter vocational ed but fail to complete it have lower employment rates, even, than those who never participated in any programming at all. And they make less money: On average, just $7,698 per year. (Think about how difficult it would be to live on even the higher of those amounts, btw.)

If and when recidivism studies are conducted, to the extent unemployment is a major risk factor for recidivism, it's possible vocational programming may be as or more effective than drug treatment at reducing future crime: Right now we just don't have the data to tell. But since the two most important risk factors preventing reentry success are difficulty finding employment and drug use, to the extent vocational ed helps overcome the first of those barriers, it's likely reducing recidivism even if the studies haven't been done yet to calculate how much.

Bottom line: It might be possible with more information to make strategic cuts at Windham, but the lack of program-specific recidivism data prevents using a scalpel to carve out less successful programs while protecting the ones that work. If the Lege wants to slash Windham's budget without that data, their only option is to hack away at the topline number, inevitably harming programs that reduce crime in addition to those that aren't working well. As Grits opined when cuts at Windham were first proposed, "The prison system needs anti-recidivism programming and it also needs resources for evaluating how well it works so it can be adjusted and improved over time. I'm all for targeting ineffective programs for cuts and shifting resources to programming that empirically works." For now, though, Texas hasn't sufficiently invested in evaluating Windham programming (or new treatment and diversion programming, for that matter), so inevitably cuts will be made with all the subtlety of a blind man swinging a machete - there's just not enough information for them to reliably do otherwise.

UPDATE: from the Austin Statesman, "Senate cuts $34 million from prison schools."


Texas Maverick said...

Sen Shapiro's Pub. Ed subcommittee just voted to reduce Windham's budget from 117 mil to 83mil. Loss of 34mil. 14 mil transfereed to AP programs. Your arguments fell on deaf ears.

Audrey said...

There is a great resource for education in TDCJ that is entirely untapped. That is there are a handfull of well educated, business experienced prisoners. They are not allowed to take classes because of their college education, in fact as part of the punishment they are not even allowed to be an aid to the teachers. It's absurd to misuse such resources. These people are willing and able to teach or assist in teaching. If the "mangaement" or "rank" of TDCJ could be taught to utilize this group, it could have a true savings on the Windham budget. Unfortunately, many of these prisoners are more educated than "rank" who is determinung what jobs go to who. It seems instead of utilizing these resources, they are fearful of those more educated and experienced in real world occupations.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I expected no less, TM. Further, expect crocodile tears and buyer's remorse down the line, just as we saw after cuts to Windham in the 2003 session.

Audrey, that's an excellent point about peer education. Problem is, it would take staffing to implement and they're slashing all the manager jobs first.

Audrey said...

Scott, I see your point. I am not certain how much management it would take really. We were starving for the challenge....I begged the education dept for anything they would let me help with...they just wouldn't have it. I could have taught math, computers, bookkeping, GED test preparation or just how to do personal budgeting without anybody telling me how. I could follow already established class plans or create and have approved my own. Some of the teachers I saw and heard about (at Lockhart) are in their late 70's (maybe 80's) and can barely handle their classes, much less teach anything. Math is one of the prisoners scariest subjects...I know how to teach it and make it fun even!! Such a waste...I was hardly the only person...there were several of us who could have had an immediate effect and cost savings to TDCJ. I know the biggest issue would be the trust factor.

A Texas PO said...

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this. After all, this is the same Legislature that doesn't see any negative implications of cutting education funding for children. I imagine a budget meeting at TDCJ goes a bit like this: (Idiot 1) "Hey, this is a program that works." (Idiot 2) "Yeah, let's cut it. If they can do great things with the current budget, gutting it won't hurt them." (1) "Sounds logical to me!"

Anonymous said...

My son is in tdc. The GED teacher asked if he could help tutor some of the inmates. They refused to let him help and he is not allowed to take some of the courses because he has a high schoold diploma. It doesn't make sense to me, but I don't know how it all works anyway.

The Geography Lady said...

Part of the problem is that it can take 2 years of being on the waiting list to get into the GED classes. Then when the inmate finally gets to the top of the list, he's transferred and has to start all over. Or he takes some of the GED tests, then gets transferred, and can't get into the classes at the new unit, so doesn't finish taking the tests.
This has to eat into the stats, but isn't ever mentioned.

Texas Maverick said...

Transfers were noted as a problem during the committee discussion. 3 riders are proposed - computer aided/virtual classes making transfers a non issue; being sure the substance abuse classes are evidence based and looking at alternative structuring of classes (not sure exactly what this one means) Biggest complaint was why 500 administrators are needed and double dipping by using CO's as subs for teachers. My surprise was the superintendent is not an educator but a former TDCJ employee. That was also noted in the discussion.

I agree with all the comments, Windham/TDCJ doesn't use resources they have and the relationship with TDCJ and TEA is too muddy. Is it a school or is it just another TDCJ attempt to meet federal requirements? Who knows? Nice to see the leg. is asking the questions.

Anonymous said...

Some barriers are hard to break. Getting inmates past that fourth grade barrier sometimes seems downright impossible. They didn't get there by age 20, or 30 so reading at the fourth grade level, for many, still doesn't seems worth the effort. Why is it that so many Americans can't make it past that fourth grade level of proficiency?

Texannna said...

I have posted before but I had to attempt to asnwer some fot he questions asked in this particular session. I am a WSD counselor. In response as to why we don't use college educated offenders-that is a TDCJ policy. Offenders convicted of certain offenses CANNOT be used in the school house. Generally that refers to sexual offenders but it also depends upon the makeup of the prison 's offender population. I have several former teachers on my unit who would love to act as aides but have not be selected. Granted they have probably been stripped of their teaching license but we have asked that they be considered as aides and have been told not gonna happen. Why? I have no idea. Again it's TDCJ not WSD. And not all of them are sexual offenders either so that is not the reason.

As far as online classes-the law is very specific that sexual offenders CANNOT have access to the internet and /or computers in general without special permission. That is why most of them are not in the school house-we do have computers there. They cannot take any computer based classes at all-this is a Texas Legislature decision that we must follow-not a TCJ decison-not a WSD decision. but our legislature. By requiring us ot offer online courses, we will be either denying an education to those offenders if we go solely online or we will be putting the public at risk.

As an example of what can happen and probably would- look at the recent escape from Stiles and that is thought to have ben faciltated by a phone with Internet access-can you imagine the potential for escape using the internet? Even if we do offer online classes someone is still going to have to monitor the computer systems and make sure the system is locked so that they cannot access unauthorized materials. Even doing all that there is a risk that remains.

Many of our offenders do not have any idea HOW to use a computer. We do have computer lab classes that teach using computers that are NOT able to go online. Many of the offenders are on GED or just below (preGED level). They have almost no ability to independently work on their own. We would also have to teach computer skills to most of our offenders before they could even begin to use a computer much less go online. Who is going to do that if Windham is no longer there?

So as you can see, the online challenge is a very difficult one in this environment. In order to do this we are going to have build some kind of system that will enable the job to get done and still allow the public to be safe.

If and when an escape is found to happen after we institute online classes using computers, who do you think wil be howling the loudest? I can bet dollars to doughnuts thatWhitmire and his cronies will be in the group-forgetting that THEY mandated that WSD and TDCJ do this. If TDCJ cannot keep up with the contraband that is somehoe pouring inot the prisons then just wait until the offenders get their hands on the computers and have internet and cna go online. We have some very intelligent people in there who have nothing but time and use that to figure out how to beat the system.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Texanna, the counterargument to that is that they can get internet access right now via contraband. If TDCJ installed computer infrastucture, usage could be tracked, keystrokes and IM messages recorded, contacts structurally limited, etc.. There'd be occasional errors sneak past, just like with the mail, but at least there'd be a regulatory structure attempting to oversee what's going on.

I'd agree with you about the risks of internet access if so many smart phones weren't already getting into TDCJ. But the question seems to not be whether inmates get internet access - which TDCJ seems unable to control - but whether it will be regulated by the state the way phone calls and mail are monitored, etc., or only done via contraband? Setting aside for a moment what "should" be and focusing on what is, IMO the benefits of limited computer/internet access in prison (and for that matter training for those who can't use computers) outweighs the risks and actually gives MORE control than the status quo.

And to those suggesting peer education, that's a really good idea. Hell, I like the idea in public schools too, actually. In both situations you've got a subset of people there who're smart, forced to be there against their will, plenty capable, and bored to tears, so they may as well make use of that resource.

Audrey said...

Holy Cow Texannna, most of the intelligent people in prison are not trying to figure out how to beat the system...they are trying to figure out how to survive with their sanity in tact.

Anonymous said...

They spent twelve years in school, got their HS diploma and now function at the fourth grade level. What did they do during those twelve years?

Audrey said...

The question is ...what kind of a system kept passing them, assuming they did have 12 years of school?

Anonymous said...

What is the REAL COST of cutting WSD?
Submitted by Visitor on March 22, 2011 - 8:29pm.

Senators Shiparo and Whitmire have not even begun to realize the REAL COST of cutting out the education programs that are offered by WSD. First of all, I teach CHANGES II with the district and my job is get these "convicted felons" ready to return to the freeworld. I teach lifeskills such as budgeting, goal setting, anger management, time management, how to get a job and more importantly how to keep a job, and much much more; these are not a WASTE of my tax monies or the tax monies of my fellow Texans, quite the contrary..these as skills that these offenders DO NOT possess. Secondly, WSD's vocational classes are FIRST RATE; these classes are taught by industry professionals, NOT some yahoo off the streets. Each one of these classes has an EOC (end of course exam) that by the way, was formated by INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS. A waste of money; why YES ACCORDING TO SHIPARO AND WHITMIRE. Third, our GED classes are filled with students that are FINALLY BEING SUCCESSFUL for the first time in their lives. These are the same students that have fallen through the cracks in our PUBLIC SCHOOLS. And according to these brilliant senators, because they are "convicted felons'...they do not deserve this chance to do anything positive in their lives. After all it was themselves, who did this to themselves....

So again to these brilliant senators..."What is the REAL COST of cutting their opportunities to become 'law abiding citizen' through getting an education while incarcarated?" Remember, these same "convicted felons" are going to get out someday and they are going to be illiterate to job skills, illiterate to life skills, illiterate to educational skills, and most of all THEY ARE GOING TO BE YOUR NEIGHBORS OR YOUR FAMILY'S NEIGHBORS....have you considered this? Are you prepared to pay this COST with MORE CRIME on YOUR STREETS? We already do not have enough correctional officers in TDCJ and according to some reports, by year 2013 the prisons are going to be short some 10 to 20 thousand beds already...hey why don't we double or triple this number by doing away with the programs offered by WSD? REALLY...DO YOU THINK THIS IS WHAT YOUR CONSTITUENTS HAVE ELECTED YOU TO DO????

One more thing before I go, Shiparo wants to have these "convicted felons" do their GED classes ONLINE....this will allow them OPEN ACCESS TO THE WORLD WIDE WEB. OK, let's look at the capital outlay for just running the wiring, buying the computers that are internet accessable, trying to install the "SAFE GUARDS" to prevent such wandering on the WWW, and let's not forget the salary of these IT SPECIALISTS and the 'watchful eyes' of the proctor to keep everyone on task...can someone say MULTI-MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. But hey, this is going to save money in the short run by FIRING 1,100 to 1,300 PROFESSIONAL TEACHERS and staff. Good idea...right? As my offenders would say, "I'm just saying......" Just something to ponder from one of those "WASTED MONEY TEACHERS".....

Anonymous said...

Why were they unteachable during those twelve long years? Now we have to spend all that money to teach them what the rest of us learned when we were in school.

Anonymous said...

To answer the question of why they were unteachable during their 12 years...the biggest reason why is because they were in the cycle of crime and drug addiction. They did not attend school full time and when they did, they were the ones that were put at the back of the class and told..."do not be a distraction and I will just pass you with a C." Many of these offenders were special education students, limited English speaking students, or had other learning problems that were not diagnosed. Quite frankly, they fell through the cracks in our public school system. In the prison setting..they are a captive audience and they have matured enough to understand the importance of getting that GED, or that vocational trade. Many of them lack the life skills training, by the way that is NOT taught in the home or at public schools, and in Cognitive Intervention and CHANGES classes this is what we do. We train them to come into the free world and get those minimum wage jobs, train them to think before they act or react to a problem - through problem solving units, we train them to use a budget and set goals for every facet of their lives, we train them to use their anger management skill, to access the resources that will assist them in becoming a RESPONSIBLE CITIZEN. And you ask what do we need to spend money on convicted felons for..isn't it clear to you yet, what the REAL COST OF NOT SPENDING MONEY ON THESE OFFENDERS WILL BE? These folks are coming back to YOUR community and my community and are going to be our neighbors...are you willing to just bury your head in the sand and just stay oblivious to the consequences?

Audrey said...

They are people....why don't you ask each one of them what was going on in those twelve years...instead of making generalities? Its real easy to sit on the outside and judge, isn't it?

Grumpy_One said...

To answer the question about why couldn't they have learned during their 12 years of public school...let's look at the fact that a lot of them were special education, multi-learning disabled, and quite frankly not diagnosed; they are the one's that fell through the cracks in public school. Another reason would be that they were caught up in the criminal/addictive cycle. The lack of attending school or being placed in the back of the room and told to keep their mouths shut and don't bother the rest of the class...they were passed on just to get rid of them.

Now that they are between a rock and a hard place, they are a captive audience and ready to learn due to some maturation and plenty of time to think about their situation. I agree that they should have learned; but they did not and why hold it against them, if they are willing to put forth the effort and get that GED.