In his budget address last month, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that he plans to cut almost $2 million of funding from the Community High School of Vermont, a program that provides high school classes to those in Vermont’s prison system.
There are 17 campuses in Vermont, according to Wilhelmina Picard, Vermont's director of corrections education — one in each of the prison facilities and at nine parole and probation offices throughout the state. The proposed budget cuts would reduce the program to four prison campuses in Vermont.
Picard says that on a typical day, there are approximately 500 to 600 enrolled students in classrooms throughout the state.
“We have basic skills classes, regular high school classes, career and technical education classes, welding programs, culinary arts programs and a number of different things,” says Picard. She explains that the Community High School doesn’t look much different from other high schools, other than its alternative setting.
“The majority of our classes are taught in person by accredited teachers,” Picard says. “We are limited in terms of the technological advances that we can use within our prisons.” She explains that due to security reasons that limit inmates' access to technology, it is difficult, if not impossible, to allow students in correctional facilities to take online classes.
Vermont law stipulates that any offender in a prison facility who is under the age of 23 is required access to education. Lisa Menard, deputy corrections commissioner, explains that having access to education in prisons isn’t just mandatory, but best practice. “Not just the education, but the technical certifications are important for the offenders because it enhances their opportunities for jobs,” says Menard.
Picard cites an example: “We had a gentleman who came to us who had committed a crime. He had substance abuse issues. He had not completed his high school diploma requirements and came to the community high school, started with basic classes and transitioned to SolidWorks class.”
SolidWorks is an AutoCAD program that works with steel detailing, construction and fabrication. Picard says that the inmate learned the technical aspects through the Community High School and got an internship with the prison industries, which then became a paid position. “Once he was released from prison, he continued his education and now works for a company in the Northeast Kingdom and is making a very livable wage,” Picard says.
Picard says that the Community High School has had numerous success stories with people who came to prison, both with or without a high school diploma, who needed the skills to be successful within the community.
Cutting $2 million from the school’s budget will have an effect on the number of students able to take classes in the prison system. Picard says, “We will just have to be really, really careful about how we identify those who need education services and how we will transfer them to those facilities. It will be a challenge.”
Commissioner Menard says that although she believes the number of offenders in the system under the age of 23 has decreased, it may still be a challenge to provide education to those students who remain. “I do think that the teachers and the staff at the school have been incredibly creative and passionate about the work they do, and we will continue that, but it will be in a more efficient manner,” she says.
So is it shortsighted to try to save $2 million by significantly cutting the education program in Vermont prisons?
Deputy Commissioner Menard doesn’t think so. “The number of students in that age range has decreased significantly and there is a much greater aging population. I think it’s going to take a lot of clever planning.”
Picard pauses for several seconds. “My heart is in education,” she says.
With a lot of the changes falling on her plate, how will Picard make it work? “With a lot of creativity,” she says. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to fix it for all the students. My staff is dedicated and we’ll definitely do our best, but it will be a challenge.”