Inmates who take classes in jail dramatically reduce their chances of re-incarceration. A 2013 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice found that vocational and academic courses resulted in a 40-percent drop in recidivism, while each dollar spent on inmate education saved taxpayers $4 to $5.
But women behind bars in Santa Clara County are often prevented from signing up for classes because they’re classified as security risks. A Civil Grand Jury report issued over the summer charged local jail authorities of overstating those risks, and disproportionately limiting learning opportunities for female inmates. The Board of Supervisors will discuss the report when it meets Tuesday.
Elmwood Correctional Facility, which is run jointly by the Department of Corrections and the Sheriff’s Office, classifies inmates on a four-point scale. Of all women jailed at the Milpitas facility at the time of the grand jury investigation, 178 were considered low-risk (Level 1). Some 332 were considered moderate risk (Level 2 or 3), while 167 were labeled high risk (Level 4). The higher the risk, the fewer classes an inmate can take and the more confined they are to their cell.
“The inability of female inmates to take classes forces them to remain long hours within their cells or dormitories,” according to the report. “The grand jury was told by Elmwood staff that extensive physical confinement of the female population led to severe cases of depression and several attempted suicides. The depression can be so severe in some women that they are placed on a 24-hour watch unit where correction officers check the cells every 15 minutes to confirm their well-being.”
The grand jury advised the jail to expand course offerings for higher-risk inmates, or re-classify them to make them eligible for more classes.
Elmwood has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its gender gap in education. A civil grand jury report from a decade ago found that men could choose from 90 percent more classes than female inmates. Seven years later, another grand jury found that disparity persisted and said the jail should invest more in women’s vocational training.
Jail officials agreed with the 2012 findings that the inequity was a problem, but added that security classifications and a lack of physical space prevented them from closing the gap.
A year later, the DOJ-funded Rand study came out. The report determined that inmates who took part in correctional learning programs are 43 percent less likely to end up behind bars again. They also have a 13-percent greater chance of finding work once they’re out of jail.
But Elmwood’s educational programs are poorly managed, which prevents the jail from getting the most out of limited time and classroom space, according to the latest grand jury report.
Jurors said the simplest way to improve access for women would be to reclassify them as a lower security risk to qualify them for more classes. Prisons and jails across the nation have been grappling with the same problem, which has come into sharp relief as female incarceration has skyrocketed over the past two decades. Since 1985, female delinquency has increased year over year at double the rate for men.
Many of the women may have been misclassified in the first place because the jail relies on policies designed for male offenders. Jail staff told jurors that this lack of a gender responsive approach results in women being assigned a higher security classification than they warrant.
Chief of Correction John Hirokawa, who runs the jail, said the county has pegged $30,000 to pay for an outside expert to review the classification system.
Meanwhile, the jail should find a way to expand course offerings that would ready women to find work upon their release, the report suggested. Existing courses include landscaping, food prep, computer training, business and embroidery/silk screening. Because the average jail stay lasts less than a year, Elmwood only offers months-long vocational courses.
The grand jury's recommendations come amid a national push to ramp up corrective measures in so-called correctional systems. A new White House initiative will offer Pell Grants to state prison inmates to take college-level courses.
- After a winter that was hardly a winter, Sunnyvale may have a new homeless shelter in time for cold weather this year. The county lost its 125-bed National Guard Armory shelter when Sunnyvale decided to convert it to low-income housing. While the county has yet to secure a permanent replacement, a temporary sprung tent stand-in will go up on the corner of Fair Oaks and California avenues in Sunnyvale. The 100-bed tent shelter will lie on a concrete base and house up to 100 people a night. It will cost $1.3 million, forcing the county to draw $857,000 from general fund reserves.
- Two years ago, county social workers dropped more than 40 percent of calls to the region’s child abuse hotline. A scathing management audit prompted the Social Services Agency (SSA), which manages the phone bank, to hire more staff and revise the staffing schedule to have more people available during the busiest hours. A civil grand jury looked into the matter a year later, finding that other counties manage to take every single call. Jurors advised the SSA to make that the goal here, too. The call center has made considerable strides since then. From answering just 59 percent of calls in 2013, it picked up 79 percent in the second half of 2014 and 93 percent this year (including returned voicemails). The ultimate goal, of course, is to answer 100 percent of calls.
- A water pipe at the county’s $75 million crime lab had been teeming with bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease, a type of pneumonia. County officials have been working on lowering levels of the bacteria, which were discovered in the pipe in 2013.
WHAT: Board of Supervisors meets
WHEN: 9am Tuesday
WHERE: County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose
INFO: Clerk of the Board, 408.299.5001
This post has been updated.