Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Officials celebrate revamped Inmate Learning Center


At the Helen Pedotti Inmate Learning Center, some students don’t know how to read, or do simple math and many speak little or no English.
It’s not a traditional school. The students wear blue jumpsuits and are escorted to class by armed deputies. But for dozens of inmates at the Santa Barbara County Jail, this one-room, white building tucked beneath 15-foot razor wire fences, is a glimmer of hope in the midst of serving hard time.
And the students, most of whom have been convicted of serious crimes, take their studies seriously.

“It is a good opportunity to take advantage of our time here,” said Jesus Perez, who is working on earning a general education certificate (GED). “[When we get out] we need to take care of our families and children.”
With recidivism rates in the state and county hovering around 70 percent, according to Sheriff Bill Brown, any sort of education that better prepares inmates for the challenges in the real world will help keep them out of trouble.
“It’s very well known that if we can educate [inmates], the recidivism rate will go down,” Brown said yesterday during a ceremony to dedicate the learning center and the revamped education program. “It’s finally coming of age that we have to invest on the front end so we don’t have to pay as much on the back end.”
The inmate education program has been in place since the 1980s and is conducted through a partnership with Santa Barbara City College. But recently, through a $278,000 donation from Helen Pedotti, the learning center’s namesake, the program has gone through a rebirth that has seen the number of teachers jump in the past year from one to six.
Pedotti’s donation allowed the program to purchase new computers and software that make it easier to teach multiple courses at the same time — something that was impossible until now.
Nancy Hutterer, an instructor who has taught general education courses at the jail for the past seven years, said prior to the new funding, only one course could be taught at any given time. As a result, she said it was often difficult to hold class because there were too few people.
Now inmates working on earning a GED, English students, computer literacy students and many others, can all utilize the classroom at the same time.
“We can now teach more than one thing at a time efficiently,” she said. “I’m a big fan.”
Hutterer said it takes inmates six weeks to complete the necessary tests to earn a GED, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma. On average she said two to three inmates earn a GED each month.
Like Brown, Hutterer said the more knowledge and learning inmates can receive while behind bars, the more likely they are to be successful once released. After all, the vast majority of inmates in the county jail are being discharged straight into local communities.
“They live here. This is their community and it’s really important that they’re able to thrive in our community,” she said.
While there is little doubt that educating inmates can help reduce recidivism, Brown said the Sheriff’s Department hasn’t had the technology available in the past to monitor the success of student inmates.
John Romo, a former City College president who helped coordinate Pedotti’s donation, said some of the funds will be used to invest in technology to track the program’s success.
During Romo’s six-year tenure as president, he said the inmate education program was not something he or his administration swept under the rug.
“I talk about this program all over town,” he said. “We are so proud of this effort and so proud of this partnership.”
Pedotti, a longtime local philanthropist who has focused her energy on education and the jail system, was presented a certificate of appreciation and other awards as thanks for her contribution.
Brown said the learning center is the first sheriff-owned structure that is not named after a former sheriff.
Pedotti credited Brown for the success of the program and said she knew he was the right man for the job when he began his campaign in early 2006.
“It wouldn’t have happened without Sheriff Brown,” she said. “It has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me to be involved.”
Brown began his remarks by commenting on the current fiscal crisis at the county and state levels, which are squeezing funds from the Sheriff’s Department as well as nearly all other public agencies.
With the chronically overcrowded state of local jails, he said it isn’t easy to provide such educational programs, but it’s one small step to try and uncrowd the jails and save money at the same time.
Chief Deputy John Peterson, who is in charge of the jail, summed up what his hopes are for the 4,000 inmates who have used the educational services over the past two decades and the thousands who will do so in the future.
“We’re trying to give them tools so when they get out of here they can deal with the challenges life throws at them, and hopefully they’ll deal with them so well they’ll never come back,” he said.

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