Correctional and Vocational Education: Does it Work?-DC Public Safety Radio

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Len Sipes:  From the Nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  Today’s program is about correctional education, vocational education.  It’s been talked about for decades, the whole concept of preparing people coming out of the prison system.  And the research certainly seems to indicate that the better prepared they are when they come out of the prison system, the less they recidivate, the fewer crimes are committed.  And in fact, states find themselves saving literally hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of reduced prison costs, in terms of reduced operating costs.  It’s a win/win situation for everybody involved.  But we have two issues going on today, ladies and gentlemen.  We have massive budget cuts at the state level and states are basically saying hey, we can no longer afford to do the sort of programs that are necessary.  We understand that they cut recidivism, but then again at the same time, there are budget cuts that need to be made.  And with the whole reentry movement, where in essence what the Department of Justice and everybody else is saying is that the better prepared individuals are upon release from the prison system, the better they do.  Again, the less they recidivate and the less they cost states.  We have two principals with us today to discuss this entire issue, Steve Steurer; he is the Executive Director for the Correctional Education Association of America and Bill Sondervan.  He is a professor and Executive Director of Public Safety Outreach for University of Maryland University College.  First of all, give me a sort of an overview of the Correctional Education Association and you guys have been around for decades, and in terms of the preshow, we were talking about the whole issue that you all had been pushing this whole issue of reentry for decades.  So this concept that we think is new, preparing offenders coming out of the prison system and have that seamless transfer to resources and the community, that is something that you guys had been advocating for decades, correct?

Steve Steurer:  That’s correct.  CEA has been around, it’s heading towards its 70th birthday in a few years.  And we’ve always advocated to educate inmates for preparation for, you know, getting back into society and being productive people, workers, parents, etc.  But that’s nothing new.  The reentry efforts, I’m very happy that we’ve seen this emphasis on reentry.  I think the only thing that I feel badly about is that it doesn’t really focus as much on education as I would like to see.  We do have an opportunity to get some educational efforts going through this Second Chance Act and we have taken advantage of some of that.  But education seems to get lost.  A lot of programs want to go forward for reentry, but if you have a highly illiterate population unprepared, you need to catch them up a little bit with skills and the ability to communicate in order to be successful in other programs.

Len Sipes:  But Steve, the bottom line in all of this is that the research does indicate that the better prepared offenders are upon release, especially if they transfer seamlessly in terms of similar programs in the community, the less they recidivate, the less crime there is and the fact that states do save hundreds of millions of dollars in delayed or completely postponed prison construction costs, correct?

Steve Steurer:  That’s correct and most people in criminology believe that and understand it because of the research.  I mean you can get into the particulars about which programs might be more effective than others, but that nobody really knows precisely.  But they do know overall, education programs with basic literacy or post-secondary education, an investment in that pays off tremendously in fewer crimes and fewer re-incarcerations and then costs to the public, you know, in general.  But that’s a given for almost all of us.  But the problem with budget now is there are all kinds of priorities.  And so corrections kind of falls to the bottom underneath public schools, university and education, etc.  So we’re fighting for a small number of dollars’ worth, you know, with other priorities.  So we’re in a real pickle right now.

Len Sipes:  Bill Sondervan, you are a professor and Executive Director for Public Safety Outreach for University of Maryland University College.  University of Maryland University College, it just teaches an immense number of individuals.  What is it, like 90,000?

Steve Steurer:  I think last I looked; we’re up to about 95,000 students or more.

Len Sipes:  95,000, that’s amazing.  And one of the things I do want to be sure that people understand before we get into the crux of the conversation today is that you have had a lifetime in the criminal justice system, but you ran Corrections in the state of Maryland for how many years?

Steve Steurer:  Len, I was a deputy commissioner for five years and I was the commissioner for five years before a short stay at the American Correctional Association and then coming to University of Maryland University College to run the criminal justice program.

Len Sipes:  So both of you have seen everything.  Both of you have been around in this system for a long time.  Bill, again, I’m assuming that you agree with the proposition that I’ve placed to Steve and that is is that the better prepared they are in prison, the less they’re going to recidivate when they come out and there’s research that shows this, correct?

Bill Sondervan:  Yeah, absolutely Len.  I think one the realizations that the corrections community came to is that we have to do better than we were doing in the past.  In the old days, we did very little research.  We did very little to prepare inmates to go home.  But there’s been a realization that we need to do research.  We need to see what works and what doesn’t work.  We need to focus our limited dollars on the programs that work effectively.  And when inmates come into the system, like I ran a state system with 27 prisons, and what we all decided that we needed to do is as inmates came into the system, we need to assess them, see what their needs were, get them to a prison that had programs to deal with their needs, do effective things and start preparing them to go home from the time they get in, cause 95 percent of them are going to go home.  And in the old days, like in Maryland, we would give them 20 bucks and put them on the bus and that was the end of it.  But we’ve got to do a whole lot more on that end.  In Maryland I’m proud of the fact that we did some of the initial research, the Department of Justice and others, to determine what those needs were and start putting those programs into place and doing pilot studies to show that we can make a big difference in recidivism rate if we did the proper things.  And one of the things that really stood out of that was correctional education.  I think correctional education is one of the things that really works.  It’s been empirically shown to be effective through studies.  And I think it would really be a crime if we didn’t continue to support and expand correctional education the best we can.

Len Sipes:  Steve Steurer, I do want to give out the website for the Correctional Education Association,,, and for Bill Sondervan it’s,  Okay, well gentlemen, look, we set up the program.  We talked about the fact that these programs are necessary.  We talked about the fact that these programs are effective.  We’re talking about, you know, we’ve pretty much substantiated the fact that the programs reduce crime, reduce recidivism, calls fewer people to be brought up in the criminal justice system, saves the state tens of millions of dollars.  Okay, if it’s that clear-cut, why are states cutting back on correctional education programs.  And Steve, you told me something I didn’t know before the program began is that the cut-backs also apply from federal funds, that the federal government is cutting back on correctional education programs.  So if it’s so clear-cut, why are we facing such a hard time convincing states to not only expand, but keep the capacity they currently have?

Steve Steurer:  Well, I like to think it’s not because people are mean-spirited, I think we find a few people in politics who are, but I think politicians operate with a meager amount of evidence when they start trying to do things, so they operate more on what seems to be popular or what the voters are like.  The latest example you gave of having cut all the post-secondary funds available in the United States for college education, mostly which went for career and vocational programs after somebody, you know, graduates from high school, their GED.  All that’s gone and it was done with a committee that got together with the White House and Congress secretly and decided to cut out 38 billion dollars.  Well, they went for all the low hanging fruit.  You know the things that could be easy, not just for excellent education but an icon of a program like Reading is Fundamental with zero out.  And that’s been a successful book program for years.  It’s had terrific effect on helping children read.  I mean and so who would argue against Reading is Fundamental?  And if they looked at the research, who would argue against prison education?  You could argue about whether they should get a Bachelor’s or a Master’s and how much you’re going to contribute to their education.  But people get together, politicians get together, they’ll lay everything out, they have meager evidence in front of them on all these things unless they really have a terrific staff helping them sort this out and they go to town.  And the result is a lot of stuff like correctional ed. and drug programs, you know, often get cut or other things that are good for, you know, for public welfare.  And they’ve got the voters out for these issues, so that’s part of the reason they cut them.  They’re low hanging fruit.  They’re not anything that people are going to argue about too much.

Len Sipes:  Bill, you want to take a shot at the same question?

Bill Sondervan:  Well, I think Steve hit the nail on the head, you know, and I’ve been through the budget battles.  I had to ask Corrections Commissioner, I had a $620 million budget and that seems like a lot of money.  It is a lot of money, but it wasn’t enough money to do all the things you needed to do.  It wasn’t enough money to even do the basics.  And right now, looking at what’s going on around the country and looking at the states, the budgets are really, really tight and people are cutting, you know, wherever they can and the decisions are being made physically and they’re being made politically.  And the money’s really, really tight and folks in the legislature are going to vote for budget expenditures on areas that’s politically helpful to them to get reelected.  And unfortunately in corrections, you know, there’s not a big voting block.  You know inmates don’t have a big constituency.  And I’ve had private conversations with senators and delegates and pleaded my case and asked for money for these sort of things and got a variety of answers.  And some of them were, you know what, we like you, we think you’re on track, but if I vote for this, if I approve this, I’ll get voted out of office and I’m not going to do it.  So again, I think that the issues are physical and they’re political.  I don’t think anybody’s mean spirited.  I think everybody or most people who understand the process after it’s explained to them, would want to help you if they could.  But times are just really, really tight.

Len Sipes:  Now, the PEW Center on the States just came out with a report gentlemen, where they contrasted recidivism rates state by state by state.  And they talked about the states that were doing it well and the states that really weren’t doing it well.  And we here at DC Public Safety, what we’re now doing is interviewing the commissioners or the public safety secretaries from a variety of states that have claimed reductions in recidivism due to the programs that they’ve put in.  I just did an interview with the Public Safety Secretary of the State of Kentucky and he has now cut recidivism rates to a ten year low.  So there are states out there, Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky, Oregon, and I’m probably forgetting one, that are claiming reductions in recidivism and we hope to bring them all on this air at DC Public Safety and talk to them about what they think was effective in terms of cutting rates and recidivism.  But that’s five states.  That’s five states out there that have claimed reductions in cutting recidivism.  A couple of other states have also claimed reductions, but they’ve since backed off those claims.  So some states are out there and they’re saying okay, we understand the GED programs are necessary.  We do understand that drug treatment programs are necessary.  We do understand that vocational programs are necessary.  And we do understand that when that offender comes out of prison and goes into the community that those services should be there.  So again, some states are embracing this and some states aren’t.  And everybody’s operating from the same base of knowledge, I think.   I mean the research is the same regardless of whether it applies to Michigan or Oregon.  Some states are doing it, some states aren’t.

Bill Sondervan:  Well politics drives things more than a research Len, and, you know, sometimes that’s a shame.  But you know it’s an enormously complex problem.  And we did a lot of research on what works and we came up with some good answers and more research is going on.  But it involves a lot of things.  Not only does it involve assessing inmates when they come into the program to determine their needs.  Like Steve said, you know, the average inmate has like a sixth or seventh grade reading level, but it’s more than that.  We have to, while they’re in prison, we have to do things like teach them employment readiness skills.  We need to teach them how to do, you know, cognitive thinking skills.  We need to prepare them to go find jobs, how to interview.  We had to do simple things like get them ID cards, so that they can prove, you know, who they are when they go for a job.  But it’s more than that, you know?  And it’s more than just, Corrections said it’s more than just the prison systems.  When inmates get out, there needs to be some kind of a hand off back to the community.  And the things that we found that inmates need are temporary housing.  They need to have healthcare.  They need to have medical care.  They need to have people on the outside to help them find jobs.  They need to have people on the outside to help them reconnect with their families and other people in their communities.  So it’s a very broad spectrum of things and it crosses, you know, several boundaries.  And one of the issues that I found at being a corrections commissioner, is that my money, my authority, my funding, everything I had, was all in a stovepipe.  And once I wanted to do things that crossed that boundary to reach out to the community, you really had to go out and spend the time to convince people to ask, you know, for help from people to get other organizations to chip in.  And what really made that difficult is that the inmates going home, we had 13,000 inmates go home every year, they weren’t all going home to, you know, one community.  The bulk of them were going to Baltimore, but they were going to communities all around the states.  So all those support things that you need for inmates to help them to be successful when they get out, have got to be replicated in several communities and not just one.  And that’s an enormously complex task.

Len Sipes:  We’re halfway through the program.  Steve, let me go ahead and reintroduce both of you.  We’re halfway through the program ladies and gentlemen.  Steve Steurer, the Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association,, Bill Sondervan, Professor and Executive Director of the Public Safety Outreach Program and the University of Maryland University College,  They’re our guests today, talking about this whole concept of correctional education, correctional vocational educations, correctional programs and how that these programs certainly are proven to have an impact in terms of recidivism rates.  But the fact is is that the states are struggling financially.  And as you said a little while ago Bill, they’re cutting low hanging fruit.  So is there a way, are there new techniques or are there new ways of approaching this issue that are cheaper and at the same time more effective.  Steve, you and I talked before the program that my folks wanted to ask you is that why aren’t we doing more long distance learning?  Why aren’t we having a person sitting in a classroom in Iowa teaching inmates how to read or teaching inmates vocational education in four or five adjacent states?  Why, aren’t there more interesting and more powerful ways of conducting business that are cheaper and at the same time more effective?

Steve Steurer:  Yes, and we’re involved with trying to get some of these efforts going.  Part of the, I’ll give you a good example of what the problem is.  The GED, everybody knows about the GED.  Well, the normal way that that takes place now is a face-to-face instruction or maybe some computers that people sit at and receive some instruction that way.  And well that’s all going to change.  The testing for the GED is normally done with a guy or a gal walking in to test, passes out the papers, times each one of the tests, takes the papers back and then they’re corrected.  Well, that’s all going computerized.  That’s all going to go online.  And at a local jail here in the Washington, DC area, where we’re going to be part of the pilot of this, they thought there already, because they had invested in a lab of 20 workstations a number of years ago, etc.  Well the GED testing software is going to require them to have a better fileserver and better workstations than they have.  That’s going to be the case all over the country.  There are very few states that have the technology inside that is good enough to do just basic stuff like the GED.  There’s going to be a best cost on that.  So where’s the money going to come from?  And GED testing is going forward with it and it’s going to happen at the community colleges, wherever else people go for GED testing.  So what is going to happen when somebody like Bill Sondervan, you know, when he was commissioner, goes to Annapolis and says you know, we need to upgrade our computers?  We need to do this, you know, and dollars are so tight.  So where’s that money going to come from?  But it either has to be done or all of a sudden GED passing rates are going to plummet in the nation’s prisons.  It’s one of the core programs.  It’s one of the things that people in the public would certainly support, the idea of people getting high school diplomas.  Where’s the money going to come from?  So taking that example and pushing it out there with other kinds of courses, whether it’s adult basic ed., literacy and English as a second language, parenting skills, preparing for work, etc., using computers, it costs money.  And people, they have to have staff to run it.  You have to pay, you know, fees to bring the Internet in.  And the real big sticking point for corrections is it has to be absolutely secure.  The inmates cannot get on the internet somewhere else other than what it’s designated in how do you do that?  All that can be done.  It costs money and you’re going to have to have the right kind of technical support to make it happen.  So yes, where do you go from here

Len Sipes:  But can it, I guess what people are asking Steve or Bill, can it be done?  I mean Bill Sondervan you’re a specialist in long distance education, but you’re dealing with college students.  Steve is dealing with prison inmates.  Can you really truly effectively do long distance learning remotely?  Number one, is it defective?

Bill Sondervan:  Well Len, there’s several issues there.  You know first of all, correctional systems are really technology deprived.  I became the State Corrections Commissioner in 1999.  I did not have a computer on my desk.  None of the wardens had computers on their desk.  Everything was done by stubby pencil, you know?  And there’s been big efforts made and strides made to try to computerize operations just for the basic running of the organization.  It’s been very, very difficult.  And not only are you competing for money for technology for corrections ed., you’re competing for dollars to do technology for security purposes and security reasons.  So that being one.  I’m a big proponent of online education.  I teach at UMUC and you know, probably 75 percent of our students are online worldwide.  And I’ve spent the last five years learning a tremendous amount of about it.  And it works, it works very well and it produces some really good results.  But the issue is again, like Steve said, as a correctional administrator despite the fact that I think that online education works very well; it’s very difficult to do it in a prison system because you can’t allow the inmates to go online.  If inmates go online, get onto the Internet and get into other things, things other than what they’re supposed to be doing, it can cause all kinds of problems, all kinds of difficulties and it just won’t work.  So to use that kind of technology in prisons, we have to come up with the money.  We have to find ways to do it where they can only log onto the sites that you want them to

Len Sipes:  Right.

Bill Sondervan:  log on, and you know, I think the technology’s coming along but I don’t think we’re there yet.

Steve Steurer:  I’d have to say I’d have to differ with Bill on that just because of some things I’ve learned recently.  And that it is there, but I don’t think the attitudes are there.  I don’t think that the correctional community is ready to buy into when an IT person says we can lock it down.  We can make it go just to that one site and that’s it.  And we can set it up so somebody sitting at workstation tries to break out, that computer freezes up and a signal goes out and, you know, that somebody’s violated the protocol at that workstation.  All that can happen, that can be done.  And we’re going to actually pilot that in the next couple of months at one of the local jails.  And we’re going to be trying to put GED and all kinds of other programs on that system.  But I don’t think that the average secretary of public safety or commissioner is convinced that that’s going to happen yet.  There are going to have to be some examples, successful examples that take place for a while that people don’t get out on the internet but are successful in getting a lot of educational learning done with technology that’s on the internet, and then people will start feeling more comfortable with it.  I remember years ago we couldn’t even bring a computer in a prison, although there was no Internet.  People were afraid that it would cause a security problem.  And now that nobody’s really afraid of bringing in a computer into a classroom that’s freestanding, you know, they’re more afraid of the Internet though.  So we have to go through some progressive learning here, some attitude changing as well.

Len Sipes: Well the reason I’m asking is because we’re at a dilemma.  We’re at a crossroads if the states are struggling as mightily as they are in terms of their own budgets.  You know, but some states are obviously, state of California comes to mind; some states are basically gutting educational programs.  And, you know, there’s a certain point where, you know, these other states have proven that they can reduce recidivism and other states are basically saying well, that may be but we just don’t have the money.  So somehow, someway there’s got to be some sort of solution to this issue of educating inmates within the prison system whether it’s reading, whether it’s getting the GED, whether it’s bricklaying.  I know it’s almost impossible to teach bricklaying remotely.  But there’s certainly a good part of that component that can be done remotely.  What people are struggling with is some sort of intermediate measure, some sort of idea as to where we continue to, can continue to educate inmates and at the same time live within existing budgets.  But what I hear from the two of you is that that’s still very problematic.

Steve Steurer:  Well, it’s problematic because of the cost, because of the attitudes.  And also, one of the other issues I’ll introduce here, Bill and I, you know, we’ve worked together for years in corrections and he’s got me teaching a course in criminology at the University of Maryland University College and I’ve been doing that for about four or five years now, probably driving Bill Sondervan nuts with some of my goofy activities.  But, you know, one thing that I have learned since the university is an open one, that there are a lot of students who are just marginal or maybe below margin in terms of their skills to be successful in college courses.  As a professor, I can only do so much online.  There are services at the university that I can refer them to.  You get into the same problem in prison, even in a bigger way, because so many people have marginal skills and there are software programs that help, you know, with lower level literacy skills and all that.  But you really need to do a lot more work with these students and probably have a lot of face-to-face assistance as well.  So just putting people online, even if you forget about and solve the security problem, you’re dealing with a population that often doesn’t want to, doesn’t know that education’s a good thing because they’ve been so unsuccessful in it.  A population that doesn’t know how to use technology very well, and so you’ve got to get them comfortable with it and just all these skills that have to be filled in that they missed somewhere along the line.  So technology’s not going to solve it completely, you’re still going to have to have adequate staffing.  I mean it’s a huge problem.

Len Sipes:  Okay, and the final minutes of the program gentlemen, I can’t imagine anybody better qualified to discuss this issue than the two of you.  But what, are we at a stalemate?  Is it the fact that states are just going to cut and that’s all there is to it because they feel they have no choice to cut? Is it a matter of education?  Is it a matter of getting the word out as we’re trying to do with this program?  I mean the Congressional staffers listen to this program.  We have people who run correctional systems around the country listen to this program.  What do we say to these individuals?  Are we missing a golden opportunity here in terms of the reentry world?

Bill Sondervan:  Len, I think it’s all the above.  I think that first of all, correctional educators and correctional administrators have got to work together, there’s got to be a partnership.  We’ve got to be creative in what we can do.  I think you’ll never get away from face to face teaching in the classroom.  There’s some instruction you can do on self-contained computers.  There’s some things that you can do on tape and there’s some things that you can do online.  I think we need to pursue all the avenues to make it work the best we can.  We’ve got to be part of the budget solution.  But I think there’s also an educational component.  And what I find is that so many people know so little about corrections, it’s really amazing.  I think all us, we’ve got the responsibility to work with our governors and with our legislators to educate them on the importance of this program.  And I think what we can show them is that for the few dollars you spend on correctional education, you can get an exponential return in terms of reduced recidivism down the road.  And I think we all need to get out there and discuss that and sell the message.

Steve Steurer:  I think Bill’s absolutely right.  In addition to those things, I just came back from Indiana.  They went through a whole revamping of their system, not to eliminate education but to find more economical ways.  And in some cases, I don’t necessarily agree with it because they’ve hired teachers with no benefits and everything, and so they’re going to have a tremendous turnover with those people and not a lot of effective teaching going on.   But they’re also getting bits from community colleges where teachers, you know, do work with benefits and such.  But it’ll save the state some money from, you know, having to pay people, the state employees, with higher benefits.  Now that’s what I was and I retired from that, so I like to defend that system.  But there are economies that can be made.  A number of states have really negotiated with the teachers to create, you know, some economies.  There’s going to be a lot more privatization efforts.  Ohio is selling five prisons, not privatizing them, selling five prisons.

Len Sipes:  Yes, yes.

Steve Steurer:  And the Corrections Corporation of America will probably bid and maybe Management Training Corporation.  And Management Training Corporation is very big on education.  In fact, they’re accredited by CEA.  We always fight with them because their salaries are a little lower, but you know, they really put on terrific programs.  And I’ve seen CCA education programs that are pretty good too and I’m going to be there next week at CCA to talk to them.  They’re talking about working more closely with us.  These efforts will probably save money.  We’re going to reconfigure, try to figure out more ways to do things more economically.  You know, maybe try to convince some technology companies to come in and try some things out.  We’re working with the GED tech office to find out ways to make this work in prisons and jails and juvenile facilities.  You know, this will all happen.  I’m optimistic.  It’s going to take a lot of work.  If correctional education isn’t at the table, something else is going to be put upon this as educators that might not work quite as well.  We need to be there working out all the details.  You need to have people like Bill Sondervan who when he was commissioner, Bill and I would work hand-in-hand.  I mean I was actually accused by some people in my own department of working for the Department of Corrections instead of the Department of Education.  I thought that was a compliment.

Len Sipes:  Bill, you’ve got

Steve Steurer:  I really did.  I thought it was a terrific compliment because I said, you know, you’re working for the state government for the same cause, so who cares if you’re corrections or education?  Bill stood for staff training, inmate training, you know, everybody needed to be professional and inmates needed to be retooled and put back out in the community so they could survive and be productive citizens.

Len Sipes:  Bill, you’ve got about 15 seconds before I have to close the program.  Any final words from you?

Bill Sondervan:  Yeah, no, no, I’d just like to say that, you know, we know that corrections ed. works.  It’s been empirically proven.  I think we all have a responsibility to support it and get behind it and I think if we all do that, I think we have a great chance for success.

Len Sipes:  Ladies and gentlemen, our guests today have been Steve Steurer, the Executive Director of the Correctional Educational Association, Bill Sondervan, Professor and Executive Director of Public Safety Outreach.  For Steve’s organization for the Correctional Educational Association, it is,  And for Bill Sondervan for University of Maryland, it’s,  Before we close, the American Probation and Parole Association encourages everybody to really try to respect the community supervision officers, the parole and probation agents.  There are hundreds of thousands of them throughout the United States, throughout the world, who are out there protecting your safety on a day-to-day basis.  They ask you to spend some time and spend some thoughts thinking about people who are out there every day who are protecting your safety and mine.  Again, that’s from the American Probation and Parole Association.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  I’ve been your host, Leonard Sipes.  Listen for us next time as we look at another very important issue in the national and DC criminal justice system.  Have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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