Prison education faces overhaul

Bill would end subsidy for inmate schooling, make it tuition-based.
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Lawmakers took a major step Monday toward overhauling the way Utah prisoners learn while locked up.

The House, in a 68-3 vote, passed HB100 -- a bill that would force inmates to pay for their own schooling, even if it means taking out loans. The bill also would give the Department of Corrections more control over programs offered to state prisoners.

The measure is based on the belief that educated prisoners are less likely to land back behind bars after they're released.

Utah's higher education system has been directing prison education, using about $900,000 generated annually by a fee prisoners and their families pay for using phones in the lock-up facilities. Under that system, colleges have decided which degrees to offer, and which programs to cut in tough economic times.

Utah State University dropped its programs in August 2007, and Salt Lake Community College recently said it would either stop offering or scale back several fields of study in July. Snow College expects budget cuts but has not yet told Corrections what programs would be affected.

Corrections officials argue they are better in touch with prisoners' needs and should control inmates' educations rather than be notified of what changes will come each year.

And they want to refocus prison education on vocational programs rather than degrees. That, officials say, would better prepare inmates to land jobs when they are released from prison and enable them to pay back their loans while helping to fund future inmates' educations.

HB100 sponsor Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, says his measure would shift the burden of funding inmates' education off the shoulders of taxpayers, who often struggle with the costs of their own families' schooling.

"They should not be subsidizing money for prisoners," Wimmer said.

Salt Lake Community College leaders oppose the measure. They have invested an average of $1 million from their school's budget during each of the past four years to subsidize the prison-education system, along with a combined $2 million worth of equipment.

HB100 Prison education

Would require Utah prison inmates to pay for their own schooling and would give the Corrections Department control over programs and degrees.