California to Redesign Prison Education Programs

California to Redesign Prison Education Programs

With California suffering a severe financial crisis, it seems inevitable that California’s prison education system would be hard hit. This past spring, state officials decided to revamp and redesign the prison education classes statewide, after a myriad of complaints that the programs are poorly designed and could leave inmates ill-prepared for life after release.

According to a draft report by the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board, ongoing problems include “increased class size, reduced time in class, administrative paperwork, student turnover, wrongly assigned students, inmate homework, and elimination of some vocational education programs.”

California prison teachers often struggle with enormous class sizes, with as many as 150 students per class and only three hours of classroom instruction per week. A proportion size of that ratio makes effective teaching and attention to students’ needs very difficult.

The draft report warned that through this type of programming, “rehabilitative outcomes” of inmates could be hindered and could greatly reduce efforts to reduce prison overcrowding by cutting recidivism.

Many of the problems arose after last year’s budget cuts. The Department of Corrections decided to develop five new academic models and a literacy program that attempt to maximize enrollment by adjusting the number of hours inmates spend in the classroom. Many of the roughly 21,000 California inmates enrolled in academic classes last year ended up in the “Model 4” program, which has a whopping student-teacher ratio of 120-1. The majority of prison education teachers said they spent most of their time managing paperwork instead of working with students. 

Prison officials acknowledged the fact that the program cuts were too deep and that some of the educational programs were poorly implemented. According to Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “Teachers, students, and administrators feel they are stretched too far and that this type of teaching is not really effective.”

Prison officials are working with educators to attempt to redesign the learning and teaching models to cut the high student-teacher ratios to more workable numbers. However, with tight budget cuts, much of this redesign with reducing the number of inmates that can be enrolled in academic programs. Prison educators are hopeful that boosting academic performance with lower student-teacher ratios will help move inmates through the programs quickly, opening up spaces for new inmates to enroll in. 

If efforts to overhaul the academic models are successful, educators are hoping to revise the department’s assignment system, which determines how inmates are placed in various programs.

“We need a way to get inmates properly assessed so they are in the right program at the right time, every time. We’re still a long way from being able to do that,” John Kern of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000.