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Old 03-19-2004, 02:29 AM
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Default Educators criticize CDC prison program Dubbed the "Bridging" Program

Educators criticize CDC prison program

By George Lurie, The Porterville Recorder
At a public hearing Wednesday in Sacramento, educators blasted a controversial program that force-feeds the ABCs to prison inmates.

Dubbed the "Bridging" Program, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) initiative - which began last fall - requires teachers to stand outside cell doors and shout basic instruction in history, science and English.

Inmates receive one-half hour per week of bridging instruction - the equivalent of going to school about four days a year - and those enrolled in the program get reduced sentences.

Prison guards support the program because it alleviates the need to physically transport inmates from cells to classrooms, and monitor their behavior once in class.

But teachers' union representatives claim the guards "cut a deal" with prison officials and are dictating the tenor of the new program.

Teachers' union representative Andy Hsia-Coron, who has taught at Soledad State Prison for 20 years and testified at Wednesday's hearing, said: "We strongly believe in education for inmates. But the way corrections is implementing this program is making California a laughingstock."

In fact, the prison program was recently lampooned in the nationally syndicated column "News of the Weird" under the heading "Government in Action: More Bright Ideas."

Teachers contracted by California prisons sued the state this past December, railing against restrictions they say, in some cases, force them to work in noisy cellblocks, hollering their lessons through meal-tray slots in solid steel doors.

Some teachers wear face shields to protect themselves against inmates spitting at them.

"Teachers are not custodial staff, not trained for this environment and don't meet the physical requirements necessary for this delivery method," said a Feb. 25 letter sent by the teachers' union to prison officials. "Educational areas are noisy and cell doors impede communication."

CDC spokeswoman Terry Thornton: "The Bridging Program was designed to have inmates begin receiving education earlier in their incarceration. That way, they can earn credit that would reduce their sentence and the overall time they spend in prison - saving the state money and better preparing inmates for their return to the community."

Responding to the recent lawsuit, one prison official downplayed teacher complaints, jokingly referring to the new program as "kind of like modified distance learning."

About 2,500 prison teachers - represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1000 - work in the state's prisons and youth facilities, earning between $40,000 to $65,000 per year for 240 days of work.

DOC officials have been meeting with teachers' union reps for six months trying to hammer out changes in the program.

Margarita Maldonado, a teachers' union representative: "The union wants the program to be successful. However, the parameters the CDC has established only creates failure and safety risks for our members."

"No one wants the bridging program to work more than we do, but nobody can learn going to school four days a year," Hsia-Coron said. "We are ready to work with corrections to develop a real program that actually educates inmates ... The current program is absurd."

Some 120,000 inmates are released from California prisons every year - including 1530 prisoners paroled to Tulare County.

Studies have shown that the more education an inmate receives while incarcerated, the less like they are to commit new crimes.

California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the U.S. - with more than 55 percent of the inmates released from the state's prisons eventually reoffending.

"It's time for the CDC to put a halt to this and work with us to develop an education program that will benefit everybody," said Hsia-Coron.

Following Wednesday's hearing, CDC officials promised to respond to the union's concerns within six to eight weeks.

Contact George Lurie at 784-5000, ext. 1045 or at George_Lurie@link.freedom.com
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