Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS TOWN — On a cold morning last week, everyone went about his or her business at the Northwest State Correctional Facility.
Correctional officers patrolled the maze of corridors and ran security checks on visitors. One inmate clad in orange pushed laundry carts between brick buildings, chatting with the gray-suited officer who opened and closed the layers of locked gates.
Bright sun shone harsh against the snow, tall, metal fences and new solar farm just beyond.
In buildings just past the fenced-in basketball court and next to the prison greenhouse, several inmates sat in a classroom learning about car batteries. Community High School of Vermont automotive instructor John Cross stood and presented a slide show while two men behind desks asked questions.
In the workshop next to the classroom, two vans sat in the midst of being repaired and improved.
Several miles away in the new state offices building on Federal Street, 22-year-old Brandy Bonyea sat in a Community High School classroom going over fractions and algebra with correctional instructor Laurette Garrand.
Bonyea, who dropped out of high school in her mid-teens and is currently staying with her girlfriend in Highgate Springs while looking for work, is strictly a Community High School student, not one having ever been associated with Corrections.
She originally began working towards her diploma three years ago, though she stopped when “life got in the way” and just returned about a month ago.
“I’m pretty much back where I left off,” said Bonyea.
Bonyea is one of the last community students grandfathered into the Community High School of Vermont. State funding was reduced for the Department of Corrections’ education program for fiscal year 2015, limiting the school to a select number of people.
“We used to just be able to accept anybody,” said Garrand. “Now we can only accept people under the custody and care of Corrections.”
People under the age of 23 must attend the program to get their diploma – there’s no expulsion rule – and anyone else in Corrections custody can choose to take academic or vocational classes.
Though Bonyea has never been involved with Corrections, she is able to continue learning at the Community High School of Vermont since she was already a community student before the budget cuts were in place.
In a trend of trimming the program, Gov. Peter Shumlin has included new cuts to the Community High School of Vermont as part of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2016. If approved by the Legislature, the education line item under the Department of Corrections will be reduced by over $1.7 million, or just over 45 percent.
According to Garrand, who is head correctional educator for the St. Albans District, only one male and only one female correctional facility will retain educational programs for the entire state.
It’s not yet clear which facilities these will be, meaning Northwest State Correctional Facility – and the dozen or so students in its educational program – could lose all its instructors and classes next year. Garrand, her vocational instructors and one in-prison teacher also would lose their jobs, though Garrand added that that’s not her biggest concern.
“I can get another job,” said Garrand. “But the students can’t. They can’t get a job without a diploma.”
Benefits of education
Bonyea, if she works hard, can complete her diploma by June. This accomplishment will be one a long time in coming – one that’s been postponed by deaths in the family, moves to and from other states, helping a sister care for her baby, and failed attempts at attending other alternative high schools.
“I’ve tried other programs and they just didn’t suit me the way the Community High School does,” said Bonyea. “I’m extremely happy – I had a bunch of things happen in my life and now I can focus on my life and get things done.”
Currently Bonyea attends classes with Garrand three days a week from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. In-between, she’s looking for a job, which will most likely become much easier with the completion of her high school education.
Her sister Kaitlynn for instance – whose baby Bonyea helped care for – was able to become an employee at Swanton Elementary School following her graduation from the Community High School of Vermont.
In addition to a diploma, Bonyea said she’s also benefiting from the program’s recommendation of vocational rehab – which helps her look for jobs – and its emphasis on “habits of mind,” a list of communication and social skills for students to master.
“Definitely a big help,” said Bonyea.
While a diploma is essential for obvious reasons, Garrand said there are many other benefits the Community of High School of Vermont provides. A number of prison inmates, for instance, continue taking vocational classes after they’ve attained their diploma in order to improve their work skills.
Dana Scofield is the small engines instructor at Northwest State Correctional Facility. He opened the shop last June, where inmates learn how to repair lawnmowers, tractors and other small engine equipment and work towards a technical certification.
Ryan, a 45-year-old inmate who is serving 14 months for attempting to elude, resisting arrest and careless and negligent operation, said he likes working in the shop for two hours a day. It helps him get out of the prison’s cells and mentality, and he’s also able to keep up with equipment’s newest technology.
“There’s always new stuff to learn, for sure,” he said. Ryan added that he plans to do something along the lines of mechanics once he leaves prison.
While Scofield’s students learn, they also save the state money on labor costs.
“We take care of forest and parks equipment,” said Scofield. “It saves them a ton, a ton of money by servicing these things in-house.”
Between the automotive program – which refurbishes and fixes Department of Corrections and Department of Forest and Parks trucks – the small engines program, as well as the flowers grown for state parks in the facility greenhouses, the savings add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
In addition to those direct savings, there are the hidden savings of inmates learning work skills and reintegrating successfully into the workforce. In addition to becoming taxpayers, those people are not re-offending and making their way back into the state system.
John Cross, who’s taught the automotive program for more than 20 years at the prison, said he has letters from numerous past students who have gone on to be successful and have helped the next generation – their children – stay out of the system too.
“I know that hundreds of guys who have gone through here and gone and gotten employment,” said Cross. Women he’s taught, too, Cross added, have left the St. Albans facility (when it was formerly the women’s prison) and found work fixing cars.
“They’re making a good living, not on the system,” said Cross. “They’re giving back and learning stuff, becoming part of the community, and it’s powerful.”
Concerns about cuts
While the benefits of the Community High School of Vermont are rather clear, its future is not. The potential loss of the program in the St. Albans district has both educators and their students worried.
Not knowing where the cuts may fall makes everything fair game, said Scofield.
“I’m concerned about my program because it means a lot to the students, but whether we’re on the chopping block, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just as concerned for my program as I am for John’s program and for Laurette’s program.”
One of Scofield’s students, who preferred to remain anonymous, said it’s a bleak prospect for inmates to have no educational opportunities.
“That kind of sucks because I got my own GED out here,” he said. “We’re going to be stuck in here without any education or anything to do. I’m just hoping that I will be able to continue my education.”
Kyle, another inmate, said, “Everything about this school is good. It’s the only thing about this time that’s made it easy.”
He added, “Being in here [the shop] is like you don’t feel so much like an inmate. Keeping up on things, keeping sharp and staying busy – there’s so much negative stuff that happens in the jail in general and this is all positive.”