Despite Greitens' push for inmate education, funding slashed for prison schools

JEFFERSON CITY • One day before Gov. Eric Greitens signed off on the state’s new budget, he outlined a plan designed to boost education and job training for inmates in Missouri’s embattled prison system.

In a Facebook post on June 29, Greitens said inmates should learn a trade, attend programs to help them become better parents and earn a high school diploma before they are released back into society.

“That is what will keep our streets safe. It’s what makes the millions of dollars of tax money spent on this system worth something,” Greitens wrote.

But a review of the state budget he signed the next day shows spending for rehabilitation programs within the Missouri Department of Corrections was actually cut by $1.4 million, with the lion’s share of that reduction coming in the agency’s education programs.

Although a department spokesman said the cuts won’t affect the number of inmates or educational opportunities offered behind bars, he acknowledged Corrections officials will have to do more with less.

“Although the funds appropriated for offender education and substance use disorder services are less than what had been appropriated in previous fiscal years, the department will work to ensure it is fiscally responsible with the funds that have been appropriated in order to continue its mission of supervising and providing rehabilitative services to adult offenders in correctional institutions and in Missouri communities,” Corrections spokesman David Owen told the Post-Dispatch.

For Greitens, the path toward reducing recidivism among the state’s 32,000 inmates has taken the form of a 21-member task force that is charged with developing legislation to be acted upon by the House and Senate next year.

The move is the latest in what has been a tumultuous year for the 11,000-employee department.

Faced with problems ranging from the recent suicide of a resident of a state-run halfway house for former inmates in St. Louis to the resignation of a parole board member for playing word games with inmates during hearings, the agency has been under a microscope for much of the past year.

A legislative panel met for five months this year to investigate widespread sexual harassment of female prison employees following a series of lawsuits that led to millions of dollars in payouts to workers.

And, top administrators within the agency have been replaced. In one of his first Cabinet hires, Greitens named Anne Precythe as director. In June, Greitens said “she and her team are putting the ‘correcting’ back into corrections.”

But lawmakers charged with crafting the state’s $27 billion spending plan said an overall slowdown in state tax revenue meant they had to find savings throughout state government. Among them was money for rehabilitative services.

Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, who chaired a House subcommittee on Corrections, said the department acknowledged that it hadn’t filled all possible teaching positions for the prior two years, so the committee reduced funding in that line.

“We had no extra money. That was how we made that decision,” Conway said.

Owen agreed.

“The majority of the reduction came from funding appropriated for personal services that lapsed in past fiscal years due to vacancies,” Owen said.

But, he added, “The department is currently offering the same educational opportunities to the same amount of incarcerated offenders.”

The task force, meanwhile, met in July and will gather again in late September.

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, is a member of the panel. He said lawmakers are worried that without more emphasis on rehabilitation, the state may be facing even higher costs.

“My big concern is if we keep going on this track of incarcerating people, we’re going to have to have to build a new prison soon. I don’t think anyone has an appetite for that,” Dogan said.

He is unsure, however, whether the panel will focus on the effects of this year’s budget cuts.

“It’s way too early for me to say if the budget issue is going to be a part of that,” Dogan said.

Political Fix from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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