Violence feared after cuts in prison education Officials worry about rioting by idle inmates.

October 02, 1991|By Mark Bomster and Thomas W. Waldron | Mark Bomster and Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

Steve Steurer is worried.

A prison educator for the past 18 years, he learned this week that the state will wipe out all prisoner education programs, effective Nov. 1, laying off all 163 workers.

That means no vocational training, no high school equivalency classes, no novels or law books from the closed prison libraries.

And Steurer, who will lose his job as academic coordinator for the program, can almost predict the inmate reaction.

"They're going to sit all day, just doing nothing," Steurer said. "I hope to God that nobody gets hurt. But I think we're going to have a major riot on our hands."

Shock waves rocked the prison system yesterday, as prison educators and inmates alike reacted to the state's unprecedented move.

The state also will eliminate recreational, counseling and religious programs in the prisons.

On any given day, the prisoner education program serves 4,700 inmates, including 80 to 100 who qualify for special education, state officials estimate. Eliminating it is expected to save $5 million this fiscal year, and could make Maryland the only state without a prisoner education program.

But the move could have dire consequences for a crowded prison system plagued by idle inmates with educational problems, some in the system predict.

"We think it's ridiculous, we think it's crazy, we are in a state of disbelief," said an inmate in one Baltimore area institution, who received his high school diploma while incarcerated.

VJ "A lot of the guys here are actually functionally illiterate, severely

illiterate," the inmate said. "This program here provides them with a chance to enhance their abilities."

Officials admit the state will be left wide open to lawsuits accusing the state of violating federal mandates by eliminating all education programs.

Federal law requires special education services for inmates until age 21, including those with learning disabilities, physical and mental handicaps, according to Nancy S. Grasmick, state school superintendent, whose department is in charge of correctional education.

The federal government also requires education for all inmates who lack an eighth-grade education, and access to law books for all inmates.

"We would clearly be in violation" of those mandates, Grasmick said. "We do . . . expect to potentially have litigation surrounding this."

But she added, "We do not have the funding to make alternative arrangements."

Officials admit the move will hurt the state prison system, which has had some form of prisoner education since at least the 1930s.

"Maryland has a severe idleness problem, even with the education program," said John Linton, who will lose his job as director of correctional education, which he has held since 1978.

He noted that 25 percent of the inmates currently have no work, education or other constructive activities. That will rise to 50 percent once education is eliminated, he said.

Inmates and prison officials also complained that abolishing the prison education program would keep inmates in prison longer because they would no longer gain early-release credits for going to school. Inmates can take 10 days off their sentence for each month they are in a school program.

"These men are not caged animals. They are human beings," said Vicki Shirk, a teacher at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown for six years. "With a little bit of TLC, a little understanding, a little patience . . . we did get a lot of these men on the right track.

"I'm going to make it," said Shirk, who will lose her job. "It's our students who lose the opportunity."

Charles J. Schultz Jr. lost his job Monday after teaching auto mechanics at the Patuxent Institution for about eight years.

"It gives the inmates no hope, now," Schultz said. "Before, they had an opportunity to learn one of seven trades.

"These people are going to be sitting in their tiers most of the day," said Schultz, 50. "Over a period of time, that's going to cause some short feelings. I wouldn't want to be there."

"I know society is not enamored with the talk of education of these prisoners," said Patuxent Director Joseph Henneberry. "However, these individuals will be back on the street one day. I'd rather send them back out with a work skill and a work ethic."

Jon P. Galley, warden of Roxbury Correctional Institution, said the cuts "increase inmate idleness beyond what was already in our feeling an intolerable level to one now that is mind-boggling."

He said another 600 inmates will sit idle all day because of the cuts, meaning at least two-thirds of his institution's 1,700 inmates will have nothing to do.

"All that translates into increased idleness, which has the distinct potential to increase the opportunity for heightened attitudes, confrontations, all of it."

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