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Record 873 inmates pass GED test

Program lowers recidivism, helps prisoners behave, officials say

By Andy Boyle

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

GRADY — As Mitchell Harper waited in line for his diploma, he grinned, passing a thumbs-up to his parents.

He was part of Arkansas’ largest graduating class on Thursday, one of 873 who passed the test for a GED, or General Educational Development, diploma. His parents waved from their seats in the back of the auditorium.

But the hugs would have to come later, after the guards walked the graduates out into the yard. After the women were kept away from the men, as a safety precaution.

Unlike most graduation ceremonies, this wasn’t held in a school gymnasium. This was held at the Cummins Unit, an Arkansas Department of Correction prison in Lincoln County that holds more than 1,500 inmates.

This graduation marks 10 years since the Board of Corrections mandated that all inmates without a high school diploma or GED must work on obtaining one. It also marked the highest number of GED recipients since the Arkansas Correctional School opened 35 years ago. The program has shown that it has worked, officials say, and is worth its more than $4.5 million in operating costs.

They contend that the GED program is beneficial: It lowers the recidivism rate of participants, it keeps the inmates better behaved and it increases the pay a parolee could make.

But for 33-year-old Harper’s parents, who drove two hours to see their son graduate, his graduation represents almost two decades of waiting.

When the department’s GED program started in 1973, participation wasn’t mandatory. Inmates who tested below a fourth-grade reading level had to go to the prison’s schools, and the School Board slowly raised the required education levels until it was mandatory for all inmates by 1997, according to the school’s Web site.

For 20 years, the fourth-grade educational level had been the minimum inmates had to achieve to stay out of the program. Then in 1994, the Board of Corrections began incrementally increasing the standard until it reached the GED literacy level in 1997.

The prison system had nine teachers in its first year, but that number jumped to 89 as of the 2005-06 school year. The school program now also offers some college and vocational courses.

At its first GED graduation ceremony in 1974, 67 inmates graduated. Since then, more than 18,000 inmates have received their diplomas.

During the past 10 years, the school has averaged 798 GED graduates a year, said William Byers, the superintendent of schools for the Arkansas Correctional School. Part of that increase could be attributed to a increasing prison population, he said, but it’s not the sole factor.

Arkansas isn’t alone in its mandatory education program. More than half of the states have similar mandatory programs, and the federal prison system put a similar program in place in 1981.

But the fight to push mandatory education on inmates did meet with some resistance. In 1974, Cummins inmate James Rutherford sued the Correction Department, saying he had a right to not go to school. He claimed a “constitutional right to remain uneducated.”

A U.S. district judge disagreed. J. Smith Henley wrote: “The state has sufficient interest in eliminating illiteracy among its convicts…. If an illiterate convict can learn to read and write while in prison, that achievement may motivate him to improve himself further.”

Byers agrees with the judge, adding that the benefits go to more than just the inmates.

RECIDIVISM RATES

It costs around $55 a day to house and feed each inmate, or more than $20,000 a year. But inmate education only costs about $1,000 a year per student, Byers said. That is about onesixth what it costs to educate one public-school student per year.

Of the prison system’s almost 12,000 inmates, about 4,500 participate in the GED program, putting the total cost of the program around $4.5 million a year. That’s a lot of money, Byers said, but the benefits could eventually save the department money.

A study Byers and Bill Glover, the assistant superintendent of schools, released in 2006 examined the recidivism rate and employment patterns of inmates released from July 1, 2002 through June 30, 2003. The study found 45.4 percent of inmates of all educational levels were likely to return to prison. But for those with GEDs, the number dropped to 39 percent.

Inmates who were released without a GED had a 47 percent chance of returning.

The study also found GED graduates were employed more often, and made more money, than parolees who didn’t earn a GED.

The program had potential savings of about $2.9 million per year because of early release dates for some GED graduates, the study found, and the graduates were less likely to return to prison.

“[The GED program] provides something that’s positive and beneficial to them,” Byers said. “I’ve been in this program for 33 years, and it makes a difference in people’s lives.”

It also makes a difference in the life of the prison, Byers said. The GED program is a “behavior management tool.” It helps to give the inmates something to do, he said, and it rewards them with something positive.

More education, especially for inmates, he said, is never a bad thing.

‘WAY TO GO’

Just like most graduation ceremonies, Thursday’s started off about the same: The British march “Pomp and Circumstance” played while the graduates walked in.

As the inmates filed into the room, families waved and cheered. Harper’s parents beamed with pride when he made eye contact with his them. Their son dropped out of high school when he was in ninth grade, and they’ve pushed him to go back ever since.

“We did everything we could to get him back to school,” said his father, Dale Harper. “Without the prison program, he wouldn’t have made it here today. I’m very proud he’s finally doing it.”

Mitchell Harper was sentenced in 2006 to five years for possession of drug paraphernalia. His parents said they didn’t expect him to ever get his GED. They even said he was homeless for a while.

But now when he gets out, he will have a better chance at a higher paying job and to get back on his feet, his mother, Oleta Harper, said. She hopes he will head to college when he gets out, she said, but doesn’t know if that will happen.

Before Harper received his diploma, Larry Norris, the director of the Correction Department, and others had encouraging words.

“You will receive a little piece of paper that will make a huge difference in your life,” Norris said during a speech. “It proclaims to everyone that you can succeed, even in the toughest of times.”

More than 50 percent of graduating seniors from high school who take the GED test fail it, said Robert Turner, the director of Jefferson County Adult Education, adding that 48 percent of adults in the United States don’t even have a high school education. He said the fact the inmates passed the test was meaningful.

“You are in the elite now,” he said.

As Harper was handed his diploma, he was still all smiles. His mother, who once thought their son’s lifestyle might kill him, passed on her own praise.

“Way to go, son,” she shouted, giving him a thumbs-up. “Way to go.”