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Michigan Works to Get Some Inmates Higher Education

LANSING, MICH. — 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 Monday, 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,” Romanowski said. “The higher the level of education, the less chance a parolee has of getting involved in criminal behavior.”

Quantrez Sawyer was a security officer in Detroit three years ago, but didn’t enough to live outside his mother’s house and support his three children. So he robbed a McDonald’s in suburban Detroit and is serving a five-year sentence at the Macomb facility.

Sawyer, who will be released in 2015, began taking a new entrepreneurship class at the prison. The class is aimed at helping inmates learn skills to launch a business after being released, improve their future earnings and reducing their chances of being imprisoned again.

Sawyer said he hopes the class will help him start a print shop and tattoo parlor.

“I want to show my kids that, even though their father made a mistake, he can still be a productive person and they don’t have to go down the road I went down,” said Sawyer, 33.

Since 2012, Montcalm Community College has offered correspondence courses to inmates in all state prisons, the Department of Corrections said. Meanwhile, Jackson Community College has been offering courses at the nearby Cotton Correctional Facility.

Grants help pay for prisons to offer the classes, while families typically help inmates pay for courses.

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