A proposal by the Shumlin administration to drastically cut funding to high school programs for inmates is raising concerns inside prison classrooms. Community High School of Vermont operates in all seven prisons and in several probation offices. Lawmakers are considering closing five of the prison programs and reducing staffing by half.
For inmates at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, heading to school means being followed by video surveillance cameras through heavy high-tech security doors to an outdoor walkway fenced with barbed wire. Inside the learning center there’s an inviting library and two small classrooms. Inmates older than 23 don’t have to take classes. But on this day, in Cara Berryman’s classroom, all four students are over 23, and they have all read an assignment about safe food preparation.
“When we cook we have to watch out for viruses, bacteria, parasite and fungi,” Berryman reminds them.
“Fungi — I am a fun guy,” one student jokes.
“We’ll do chapter two,” Berryman says, and the students pay close attention as she reads from a textbook, and then asks each of them to read a passage.
Mark Savary hopes this career prep course, called "Serve Safe," will help him make money and stay out of trouble when he gets out of jail.
“I work in the kitchen right now, but I’m thinking about maybe opening up a hot dog cart and stuff like that, and I think the Serve-Safe certificate would be essential to that goal,” he explains.
These Community High School students also take art, math, science and English. As graduation standards have risen, the number of diplomas granted statewide has fallen, from nearly 150 in 2007 to about 40 last year. That decline is prompting the Corrections Department’s plan to close classrooms. Math teacher Nick Rulon says that’s got his St. Johnsbury students worried.
“And a lot of them have said this is one of – if not the only – positive thing I am getting in this place, it’s something they look forward to and a lot of them do see it as an opportunity,” Rulon says.
Instead of closing prison schools, Rulon thinks more effort should be put into getting inmates to attend them. One of the two math students in his class, 27-year-old Tim Colby, agrees. While serving time for sexual assault, he’s trying to master fractions — something he never did in high school. Here, he says, he learns something useful every day.
“I can’t believe they want to take it away,” Colby says. “I mean, there might be only a few of us but I think it’s such a huge difference in our lives. I got myself to be a felon but I am going to try to be able to be in the community again and be able to work like a normal person even though I’ve made mistakes ... You know, it’s given us another chance.”
Wilhelmina Picard, who directs the statewide Community High School program, worries that the proposal to limit it to only two campuses — one in Chittenden County and another yet to be named — could deprive students in other facilities of the academic and career training and life skills coaching they need to turn their lives around.
“And now’s the time for some of these folks, especially the younger ones – and I consider 40 and under young, you know – it’s make or break,” Picard says.
Picard cites recent data linking correctional education to lower recidivism. But Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito has warned that if Community High School isn’t trimmed, he might have to look at cutting other necessary programs, such as sexual offender treatment.