Prison education

MARQUETTE – The Michigan Department of Corrections is working on several efforts to teach community college courses and vocational training in-house to a small number of inmates near parole.

The effort comes after years without funding for prisoners to access higher education, The Detroit News reported last week, and Michigan is joining a pilot project that could provide evidence to back the idea of postsecondary education in prisons nationwide.

“We want to build the evidence that investment in postsecondary education is a cost-effective intervention and a wise use of public dollars,” said Fred Patrick of the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit research and policy group. “We also want to show it succeeds at reducing recidivism, supports families and contributes to the economic base of communities.”

With a four-year, $1 million grant as part of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education project, the pilot effort will take place at several Michigan facilities. There are about 42,000 inmates in Michigan’s state prisons. Of those, nearly half come in with a high school diploma or GED certificate.

Michigan in the past has tried to find funding to offer opportunities in higher education to inmates. Such programs have rolled out in pockets, offering training in vocational areas such as auto shop, truck driving and small engine repair until funding ran out.

“Educational opportunities are very important to help these inmates not recidivate,” said Kenneth Romanowski, warden of the Macomb Correctional Facility. “We found it’s one of the many factors to stay out of trouble in the future, besides housing, strong family ties, staying away from drugs and having access to mental health services. The higher the level of education, the less chance a parolee has of getting involved in criminal behavior.”

Prisoners at Marquette Branch Prison already enjoy a number of educational opportunities the moment they walk in the door.

“Currently, we pretty much assess each prisoner when they enter into our facility to determine what their educational needs are,” said Tim Barsch, principal of the Marquette Branch Prison Academic School.

Based on their needs, prisoners are given access to GED programming, adult basic education, a business technology program, career technical education programming and even college correspondence courses.

The classes help prisoners learn soft skills, such as working well with others and dressing appropriately for work, and how to handle their personal finances with classes on how to balance a checkbook, for example. Barsch said the courses also make inmates proficient in the entire Microsoft Office Suite.

The big focus in the last few years, Barsch said, has been on inmate re-entry into society through its pre-release program.

Every prisoner goes through the program in his last year to 18 months of incarceration.

“It does a lot of what they need – basic skills, provides them with the opportunity to get a Social Security card, which a lot of prisoners have never, ever had,” Barsch said. “We start with things like, what it’s going to be like for you, the hurdles you’re going to have to overcome to reintegrate with your family, your friends, how to stay out of the same trouble that got you into this position.”

Prisoners are also given an aptitude test that shows them what career path may be the best choice for them, and then use that information to formulate a resume and cover letter. From there, inmates can access the Michigan Occupational Information System, which provides them with a list of job opportunities.

“We have them fill out a sample job applications,” Barsch said. “Other staff that they don’t interact with on a daily basis come in and interview them as though they were applying for that job. The main question we focus on with them – ‘Have you ever been arrested, if so, what were the issues around it.’

“We give them tips on how to answer those questions. It’s on every job application.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.