Budget Cuts Threaten A Unique Alabama Prison Education Program The state has some of the country's most overcrowded — and troubled — prisons. Alabama is also home to a thriving life skills program that prison officials are fighting to save from budget slashes.

Budget Cuts Threaten A Unique Alabama Prison Education Program

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The United States locks up people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world. Some of the most overcrowded prisons are in Alabama and one of the worst is the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. It has also been under federal investigation for sex abuse by prison guards. Inmates at Tutwiler do have access to state-funded education programs. It offers GEDs and skills needed after release. Dan Carsen of member station WBHM reports that classes that could keep inmates from returning to prison are now threatened by budget cuts.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: In a small classroom in Alabama's Julia Tutwiler Prison compound, a dozen women sit at long gray tables. They all wear the same coarse white jumpsuits. A projector shows tips on responding to anger and developing a positive self-concept. Thirty-four-year-old Tamara Kirkwood reflects on her past.

TAMARA KIRKWOOD: You've got this mentality, and you don't know how to change that way of thinking. You don't know how to get around that. All you know is, I don't have and I need, and this is what's going to have to be done. And after so long, you think that's the way life is.

CARSEN: Kirkwood's in for drug charges, but she's taking a new life skills course offered by JF Ingram State Technical College.

HANK DASINGER: As I began to think about the people that I knew, including relatives, that have gone sideways with the law, what got them in trouble was not their ability or inability to do a job. What got them into a jam was their inability to manage their life.

CARSEN: That's JF Ingram president Hank Dasinger. He's a former Air Force marksmanship trainer with education and psychology degrees. Dasinger took over the seven-campus prison college two years ago and got the life skills classes started last year.

Forty-three-year-old Robin Myers is in Tutwiler for felony DUIs. She says she wishes the life skills classes were required for inmates.

ROBIN MYERS: Had I had someone teaching me the things that this program is teaching me 20 years ago, we would not be speaking at this moment. These classes take us step-by-step through thought processes, how we live, so that we can identify the steps where we're going wrong.

CARSEN: The problem is, there are only two people teaching this course at Tutwiler. A prison built for 400, it now holds roughly 700 inmates. Instead of getting more money though, JF Ingram two years ago saw its budget slashed more than 12 percent.

DASINGER: And this year, I'm facing another 20-something-thousand-dollar cut; it makes a huge difference. In light of all the evidence about the effectiveness of correctional education, how in the world do we cut the program that stands the best chance of getting people out of the overcrowded prison and into a situation where they won't come back?

SENATOR CAM WARD: It's very hard to justify education programs for prisoners when K through 12 doesn't have enough supplies.

CARSEN: That's Republican State Senator Cam Ward. He's become a leader on prison reform here in Alabama. He points to current budget realities, but he does see the benefits of prison education.

WARD: Studies have shown that those inmates who get involved in the educational component, like JF Ingram offers, they're 43 percent less likely to come back in the system again. That number's astounding.

CARSEN: There's no hard data on how much Ingram's courses reduce recidivism, but a national study by the RAND Corporation out last year concludes prison education, in general, is dramatically effective. Lois Davis is the lead author.

LOIS DAVIS: It's a relatively low-cost program that has a huge return, in terms of cost savings.

CARSEN: And cutting down on ballooning incarceration costs may persuade Alabama's conservative, tough-on-crime politicians to soften up a bit. Some are now talking about sentencing reform and about being, quote, "smart on crime," which gives Ingram president Hank Dasinger some hope.

DASINGER: I think we're at a crossroads and I think the nation is going to watch what we do. And are we going to be the Alabama of old, or are we going to really open ourselves up to new ways of thinking about a problem?

TIMOTHY BROWN: I have some fresh cantaloupe that I grew in my organic garden.

CARSEN: Convicted burglar Timothy Brown is thinking about a future outside. He's studying horticulture at another JF Ingram campus. He's got a life sentence, but he's hoping for parole soon.

BROWN: I fell in love with organic gardening and that's the medium that I want to try when I get out.

CARSEN: For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham, Alabama.

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