Could educating inmates decrease Nebraska's prison population?

An inmate reviews his math assignment while studying for his GED as part of the DCS's adult education program. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
The woodshop at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute manufactures products for Cornhusker State Industries, an autonomous organization that hires inmates and sells products to state/county/city agencies. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
A magazine rack stands ready to be stained. Cornhusker State Industries operates with no tax-payer funding, and employs inmates to build a variety of products. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
In addition to office furniture, inmates in Tecumseh State Correctional Institute's woodshop also refurbish things like church pews. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NEW News)
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March 5, 2014 - 6:30am

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is responsible for about 4900 inmates. Almost all of them will be released back into society at some point, the majority in the next 3-5 years.

Click on the video for an exclusive look at the adult educational and vocational programs at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute.

In a moderately-sized classroom filled with tables, teaching assistant Billy Billups discusses the day’s lesson: converting fractions into percentages.

About a dozen students, all male and from various backgrounds, are studying for their high school general equivalency degree, or GED.

But it is not a typical classroom, and at 58-years-old, Billups is not a typical teacher.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Billy Billups is an inmate at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. After going through it himself, he is now a teaching assistant with the adult education program. He said obtaining an education has changed his outlook on life, and now he wants to do what he can to help the younger inmates learn from their mistakes.

He and the students are inmates at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute, located in southeast Nebraska.

“I was convicted of robbery, use of a firearm, conspiracy to commit murder and distribution of a controlled substance,” Billups said.

When he began serving his sentence, Billups was 24-years-old. He’ll be 77 when he is up for parole in 2033.

Plenty of time, he says, to learn.

“Many years ago, I heard the infamous phrase, ‘the more you know the more you grow.’ I’m always trying to better myself so when I get out of prison, I can stay out,” Billups said.

Investing in the future

As of January, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services was responsible for a little more than 4,900 inmates. About one-fourth of them are in the Department’s Adult Education Program.

It costs tax payers around $2.5 million a year.  “It’s a pre-investment. The majority of [inmates] are going to be out in 3-5 years. We want to make sure they can function in society,” said Mark Wentz, the adult education principal for Correctional Services.

Wentz says while every inmate is encouraged to enroll in the program, it is required for those 22-years-old and younger.

Nearly 250 inmates earned their GEDs last school year. Given the circumstances, Wentz considers a 20-25 percent graduation rate a success.

“Every one of them had walked away or been kicked out of the educational opportunities they’ve had in their lives,” Wentz said. “Now we have guys that are making plans beyond once they get released.”

Learning how to have/keep a job

Guys like Marcus Spencer. He’s not a student anymore, though.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Marcus Spencer is the lead drafter in the woodshop at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. On March 2, Spencer celebrated his 40th birthday behind bars. Convicted of second-degree murder in 1996, he's not eligible for parole until 2017. He said the skills he's learned drafting designs, and the work ethic he's gained behind bars, will allow him to succeed when he goes home.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Phillip Maestas is the lead cut-man in the woodshop at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. He said it's "the best thing going" because it keeps him busy during the day and provides a paycheck. Inmates can earn up to $1.08 an hour. That is money which can be used to purchase food and other items from the commissary, or sent to family and friends on the outside.

Using sophisticated computer software, Spencer is the lead drafter in the prison's woodshop, which manufactures products for Cornhusker State Industries.

In 1995, when he was 21, Spencer was convicted of second-degree murder.

“There was no hope, just waiting for it all to end, actually,” Spencer said.

But it didn’t end. In fact, Spencer went on to work just about every job there is in prison.

“Over time as you mature, you start to change how you think and how you feel about things. I’ve used [my jobs] as a way to get some work ethic and learn some new skills, because I plan on going home eventually and I want to succeed once I get out there,” Spencer said.

It’s estimated more than 90 percent of Nebraska’s inmates will be released at some point, but with little education and no real job skills, a quarter of those released will wind up back behind bars within three years.

It’s called recidivism, and LaSalle University Psychologist Caitlyn Taylor says it is costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per inmate every year.

Education cheaper than incarceration

“Policing costs, court system costs, and finally and most expensive is the incarceration costs. So if we can keep someone from returning to prison because they don’t re-offend, this saves lots of money,” Taylor said.

But why should tax payers pay for a criminal’s education? After all, why should a convicted felon receive a free education, when law abiding citizens are forced to pay out of pocket, or take out loans?

Taylor calls this the Principle of Lesser Eligibility, and at a time when budgets are tight and some school districts are scaling back, Taylor said she knows it’s not easy convincing critics of the merits of inmate education.

But according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, inmates who receive some form of education are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Travis Pierce, left, assists another inmate in physical therapy. Pierce is a porter in the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute's medical unit. As a convicted felon, Pierce will be unable to earn any kind of medical licensing. However, Pierce said the empathy and compassion he's gained caring for others will translate to many areas of his life once he is released.

The study also showed for every dollar spent on education, five dollars is saved in re-incarceration costs.

“I think once people understand the financial nature of this. That can really help convince people that providing education and providing job training pays off in the long run,” Taylor said.

From convict to caretaker

Inmate Travis Pierce says that training is already paying off for him.

Convicted of robbery in 2010, Pierce now works as a porter in the medical unit at Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. He helps disabled inmates, which he said allows him to give back on a daily basis.

“It offers a clear understanding of words like empathy, and it means a lot when you have someone looking up at you and saying ‘thank you’ for helping them do something that they are not able to do for themselves,” Pierce said.

Pierce will be eligible for parole in 2017, and just like other inmates enrolled in these training programs, he said he hopes what he’s learning behind bars will keep him out of prison for the rest of his life.



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