Prison Program Requires Education for Inmates
> 2/22/2007 10:59:03 AM

In a unique system designed to turn incarcerated minors into high school graduates, Vermont has taken an extra step to stop the cycle of young inmates who return to lives of crime after release. Working from the belief that all young people deserve access to a quality high school education (whether they want it or not), Vermont requires all resident inmates under the age of 22 who have not received diplomas to spend 20 hours in school each week.

A program decades in the making, the Community High School of Vermont operates from within 17 correctional facilities across the state and includes more than 3,500 registered students, making it the state's largest high school even though it's run by the Department of Corrections and does not operate from a central location. While it has no standard schedule and doesn't assign letter grades to students, it requires the same number of credits as ordinary public schools and includes hundreds of devoted staff members (the vast majority of them volunteers) who are willing to dedicate invaluable personal time to each student. No hard statistics exist to clarify the success rate of the system, but it recently received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools (NEAS). This official validation places it in the same class as more conventional, better-known private high schools in the northeast.

One of the deadliest loopholes of the American prison system is the lack of attention paid to young people facing parole and re-entry into the outside world. Without a high school diploma or chances of pursuing a college education, these teens and young adults have almost no traditional prospects for success. The problem is well-documented, and an overwhelming number of students involved in Vermont's program told interviewers that no one had ever taken any real interest in their educations.

While there are certainly a large number of inmates disinterested or frustrated by the program, the greatest measure of the its effectiveness is the number of students who told visiting NEAS representatives that they had become more interested in learning thanks to the CHSV. The school also has numerous local offices around the state where students who are no longer incarcerated can continue their educations, and a surprising number are taking advantage of the opportunity. While the program is not perfect, its aims are noble and its successes encouraging. The vast majority of American inmates are uneducated and altogether unprepared for success outside outside of prison. Large-scale restructuring of the prison education system in our country should be a top priority if we want to reduce overall crime and lower our  depressing recidivism rates. Other states would do well to pay close attention to Vermont's admirable example and follow suit.

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