Books Behind Bars

12222222222222222222222222By Trey Arline

College of Southern Nevada provides prison education programs for inmates in Nevada to curb recidivism.

Educational opportunities are offered at High Desert State Prison and Southern Desert Correctional Center for incarcerated individuals to take GED or college courses leading to associate- or bachelor’s-degrees. They are taught by CSN professors who have passion to help improve the system in addition to changing people’s lives.

Education is one of the strongest documented cases in favor of reducing recidivism,” State of Nevada Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Brooke Keast said. “Though they must support themselves [in paying for schooling] college and high-school equivalency programs as well as vocational programs are available to them.”

In order for inmates to take classes, which is by choice, they must first apply and be accepted, attend classes, perform admirably and keep a clean record in order to stay in the program. They also must pay for their courses. According to Keast, inmates may have options to earn money doing work in prison by making mattresses, wood working, welding and creating trailers to be used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Keast mentioned potential scholarships are available for inmates at Warm Springs Correctional Center, where incarcerated military veterans host a barbecue, allowing 15 inmates to attend Western Nevada College.

Many inmates are not in for nefarious reasons, Keast said. “Nearly 80 percent of those incarcerated are people with drug addictions with most exposed to it in their childhoods and 80 percent of inmates will be out in 10 years. So we must do something to help.”

According to the Department of Corrections, 58 percent of Nevada’s inmates come to prison without having completed high school and 78 percent with minimal job training. In 2009, over 5,000 inmates were enrolled in adult education programs.

Dr. Lonnie Wright, professor of Hospitality Management at CSN, trained prisoners for 20 years.

“My first experience training in the prison was through a grant from the federal government for youthful offenders in High Desert and Southern Desert prisons,” Wright said. “Having the opportunity to train in the prisons, one needs to be passionate about results.”

Wright, a former UNLV basketball player who helps with outreach for his church, connects with many of the inmates through the game and takes on a mentorship role to those who have been disenfranchised and left destitute.

12222222222222222222Professor Kevin Mitchell, chair of the Department of Communication, taught in the prison for many years. As a communications teacher in the High Desert State Prison, he said inmates took the opportunities seriously as chances to improve their lives as mistakes would cost them the chance to use these programs for the remainder of their sentences.

Mitchell said he felt secure teaching in the medium state prison as a result. “I felt very safe even though I was locked in a room full of inmates with no security present, because they didn’t want to mess up that opportunity for themselves because they knew they’d be out,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said inmates who gain education and skills while in prison are more equipped to enter back into society as productive and fruitful members. What they learned in their educations can help set them on better pathways and keep them from coming back to prison, which ultimately saves taxpayers money in the long haul from repeat offenders.

“If people could see what incarceration means for entire families and family economics, you could see a bigger benefit [from educating them]. If we got more people out of prison, we would have a better and more sound economy,” Mitchell said.

Although there is much proof that these programs work, some cuts to the U.S. Department of Justice might impact these offerings.

“It will be a burden on society if programs like [these are] shut down because federal government bureaucrats haven’t really given thought to the social ills that will persist with recidivism—people going in and out of prison—never having a chance to become taxpayers instead of wards of the state,” Wright said.

In good news, Nevada’s Department of Corrections changed its mission statement in April to reflect the importance of education in prison. The department proposes to, “Improve public safety by ensuring a safe and humane environment that incorporates proven rehabilitation initiatives that prepare individuals for successful reintegration into our communities.” CSN’s education program helps with that.


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