Budget Breakdown: Educating Inmates

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Colorado’s prisons offer everything from GED programs to woodworking classes, but state budget cuts will mean fewer teachers at the prisons. The specifics of which jobs will be eliminated still have to be worked out. As part of our series Budget Breakdown, Andrea Dukakis visits the Sterling Correctional Facility in Northeastern Colorado. Then, Ryan Warner speaks with Stephen Hartnett, who's studied prisons for 20 years. He's chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver.

[Photo: Colorado Public Radio]


Andrea Dukakis: This stark, grayish classroom is a haven for inmate Eric Webb. He’s one of about 20 offenders doing computer design and drawing in this graphic arts class. What consumes Webb these days is designing brochures of dogs.

Eric Webb: See this dog’s name is Pogo so I put her on a pogo stick. This is Harley...I put him on a motorcycle. This is Ferris. It was Christmas and I put him on a ferris wheel.

Andrea Dukakis: When the brochures are done, they look a lot like a real magazine. And they’re not just for practice. They’ll go home with new dog owners. That’s because Sterling also has a popular dog training program. When someone from the outside adopts a dog from the prison, they also get a brochure describing their pet. And they’re all designed by offenders. Before Webb starts each one, he sits down with the inmate who’s trained the dog.

Eric Webb: They come in and I talk to em and they tell me what the dog’s commands are and we put it on the inside and we say the signals to do tricks like sit, stay.

Andrea Dukakis: Each student who makes it through this class will get a graphic design certificate from Pueblo Community College, which has an agreement with the state’s prisons. Eric Webb’s been in and out of prison for burglary, drug possession and attempted escape. He says the last few times he was in prison, he didn’t take advantage of what they had to offer.

Eric Webb: I didn’t use the tools available to stay out of prison, so when I got out I had to be a different person and have new tools and I think I’ve done that with these covers here.

Andrea Dukakis: Webb will be released sometime in the next 10 years. This time, he says, he’ll make it. At Sterling, there are about 20 academic and vocational programs. Things like business management, computers, and custodial training. Under state budget cuts, there will be less money--about $3 million less--to pay teachers at the state’s prisons. Chris Kloberdanz teaches the graphic design class. He says the cuts will mean fewer options for inmates...making prison life tougher.

Chris Kloberdanz: An idle mind is a dangerous mind. When these guys sit and be bored, they start getting angry. Every class around here has a great importance and keeps the inmates occupied.

Andrea Dukakis: Kloberdanz says not every inmate is successful like Eric Webb. Some don’t have artistic ability or aren’t good with computers...others are just hard to work with. But he says it gives offenders at least a chance at a job when they get out.

Chris Kloberdanz: Once they report they’ve had a felony, people don’t want to hire them. A few people have called who say they have gotten jobs. It’s worked well for some people.

Andrea Dukakis: Just about everyone agrees cuts to prison education aren’t good for anyone. It wasn’t long ago that former Governor Bill Ritter touted his anti-recidivism package to put money into programs for inmates. He said then they were the best way to keep people from returning to prison. Tom Clements, the newly appointed head of the Department of Corrections--who will have to choose which teachers to cut--isn’t happy either.

Tom Clements: There really are no easy budget reductions to make in the Department of Corrections. Education is one of those that cannot be cut without some negative impacts.

Andrea Dukakis: Inmate Eric Webb says he and other prisoners have been talking a lot about the budget cuts. He says prisons are always the first on the chopping block. And he wishes Governor John Hickenlooper would change his mind.

Eric Webb: I hope he sees the value of this because basically if you want to save money in the long run, you want to keep people out of prison.

Andrea Dukakis: With millions of dollars being cut from schools, Webb understands it’s tough to justify programs for convicted criminals. But he sees education in prison as good for inmates on the inside and good for everyone else, once they’re released. Andrea Dukakis, Colorado Public Radio news.