The state senate has approved a law to increase incarcerated people’s access to post-secondary education to improve their prospects upon release.
The Senate voted 23-5 late Monday, April 18 to approve Senate Bill 270. The bill currently in the House would authorize the Oregon Department of Corrections to form partnerships with local universities to provide educational opportunities to inmates.
The agency can potentially establish partnerships with universities around the state. This suggests that a community college with a strong curriculum may be able to service many correctional facilities. Officials from the agency have advised legislators that j@ils need additional resources to provide higher education programs, but the measure does not provide any money for such.
Inmates’ access to higher education is the subject of several pieces of law. Senate Bill 269, which mandates more collaboration between the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission on policies and techniques to educate individuals in detention, was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate last week. The House will vote on both legislation soon.
“These bills represent an incredible opportunity for the state of Oregon,” chief sponsor Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said in his speech on the Senate floor. “We’re moving from just punishing crime to preventing it from happening in the first place. These bills will make our communities safer, our workforce stronger, and free up millions in taxpayer dollars to build a brighter future for our state.”
This change coincides with a more significant cultural trend toward providing incarcerated people access to higher education. Inmates were first eligible to receive funding via the federal government’s Pell Grant program in July.
According to evidence from the Oregon Department of Corrections, beginning in September, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates and Snake River Correctional Institution will have access to online education programs as part of two pilot initiatives.
However, Larry Bennett, the assistant director for Correctional Services, testified in writing that the department does not have the personnel, equipment, or technology necessary to enroll students in the other ten pris0ns in the state.
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According to a statement sent to the Capital Chronicle by agency spokeswoman Jennifer Black, department officials are optimistic that the pilot will ultimately expand and guarantee educational opportunities for adults in detention in all institutions throughout the state.
Meanwhile, jail education programs face onerous federal Pell Grant rules. As a consequence, Black said, some universities aren’t prepared to start courses this fall, while others have decided they don’t want to participate in the Pell Grant program to fund jail education.
According to agency statistics, more than 9,600 adult inmates have completed high school or earned a General Equivalency Diploma (GED), making them eligible for further education options. That’s about 80% of the inmates in Oregon’s pris0ns. There are around 2,600 additional inmates who did not complete high school.
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