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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

McCallum: Diploma Behind Bars

I recently ran into an old student of mine. But because all of my former students are also former inmates, I tactfully waited for him to identify our connection.He was happy to see me and reported that he’s doing well - employed full time and a parent - a far cry from the angry cocky teenager who felt forced to attend high school classes while incarcerated a decade ago.

I used to encourage him to read and expand his vocabulary beyond the ubiquitous four-letter words. Today he’s proud of his son’s educational progress and encourages him to love books.

I worked for the Community High School of Vermont, which offers academic classes and awards diplomas in Vermont’s seven prisons and ten community-based sites. The school also offers certifications for specific jobs in the trades, like plumbing, electrical work, food safety and blueprint reading.

The thousands of men and women who earned their diplomas through our state’s largest high school were given the education, confidence and social skills that enabled them to find employment and a second chance on the outside. But now the educational arm of Corrections faces tough times. With declining enrollment and earned diplomas down by almost seventy-five percent since 2007, a proposed budget cut of nearly $2 million dollars would trim the staff in half, eliminate street sites and pull the program out of three prisons.

At a public hearing, an outpouring of concern was expressed by educators, corrections staff, clergy, legislators and families. If the deep cuts are not made, other state programs will suffer. If they are, the Community High School will have to do a lot more with a lot less.

My student did earn his diploma behind bars. It was a bumpy road but he made it to graduation. The ceremonies, attended by proud families, dignitaries and keynote speakers, provide some of the most heartfelt positive moments to be found in prison. At a 2005 graduation ceremony in Springfield’s high security prison, then Commissioner of Corrections Robert Hofmann called the Community High School the “crown jewel of Corrections.”

Studies nationwide show that, hands down, education is the best tool for preventing recidivism. If the thousands of men and women who graduated from Vermont’s least visible high school could stand up for their alma mater perhaps they could sway the vote. But offenders have little political clout. Instead, it will fall to lawmakers to balance the budget while trying to save the crown jewel.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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