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Reporter’s Notebook: Why are fewer people getting an education behind bars in Connecticut?

Marisol Garcia began pursuing an associate degree while incarcerated in Connecticut. She has since earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and enrolled in law school. Garcia keeps a nameplate at her desk to mark her next educational goal.
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Marisol Garcia began taking college classes while incarcerated in Connecticut. She has since earned a master's degree and enrolled in law school. Garcia keeps a nameplate at her desk to mark her next educational goal.

When Vernon Horn was attending classes behind bars, he says he didn’t get the education he needed to thrive. Time with a teacher was limited, Horn had to buy his own stationery and the books were outdated.

Horn was wrongfully convicted at age 17 of a murder he didn’t commit. He was exonerated in 2018.

“Now, when I left, it was like, I call myself a dinosaur,” he told The Accountability Project.

The world changed a lot after Horn was convicted in 2000. He had to adapt to smartphones, computers and emails when he got out.

“Like, I had no computer skills when I came here,” he said.

For people who are incarcerated, educational programs not only smooth the transition out of prison, but also make it more likely for people with a criminal record to gain employment, and less likely they'll go back to jail.

But over the past decade and a half, educational attainment in Connecticut prisons has dropped.

A review by Connecticut Public found declining numbers of students are enrolling in classes, advancing to the next class level, completing vocational programs or finishing a high school level education.

The declines aren't completely unexpected because the prison population is also down. The COVID-19 pandemic also disrupted educational programs inside and outside of prison.

But we found some of the sharpest declines came earlier, during the 2015-16 school year. We found two key causes for this were GED tests going online, and layoffs in the Connecticut Department of Correction’s own school district, Unified School District #1.

The school district educates incarcerated children and adults, offering programs that include high school courses and vocational training. The Accountability Project interviewed officials and employees within the education system to understand why the district has experienced that decline.

We also spoke with incarcerated people who described long waits for access to education, and an experience they say inadequately prepared them for life outside of prison, with limited access to technology.

Today, the Department of Correction is responsible for supervising close to 10,000 people who are incarcerated. An expert told us education is crucial for this group, as many people in prison struggled in school.

We also spoke with Maria Pirro-Simmons, who was superintendent of the prison education system until 2020. She said the budget was tight, and it was difficult to recruit staff.

But Pirro-Simmons said she's proud of the work taking place in prison schools, which she said are underappreciated because many people don't know that they exist.

"It only takes five minutes in a classroom with some of the educators to see how amazing it is, and to actually see the great transformative work that's being done in the district," she said.

Ashad Hajela is CT Public's Tow Fellow for Race, Youth and Justice with Connecticut Public's Accountability Project. He can be reached at ahajela@ctpublic.org.

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