The Oregon Department of Corrections is considering cutting ties with community colleges across the state and proposing to move its education program in-house to address a budget shortfall.
The DOC currently contracts with six community colleges in Oregon to provide high school diploma equivalency testing, or GED services, to inmates across its 14 facilities.
“DOC is proposing that those contracts be phased out and the agency hire back those positions as part of the DOC permanent budget going forward,” DOC communications manager Jennifer Black told OPB.
She said nearly 1,000 inmates were enrolled in the Adult Basic Skill Development program as of Sept. 30.
Black said, historically, DOC had identified “barriers” in contracting with the colleges for its Adult Basic Skills, or ABS, program including “consistency of services and oversight.”
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, contractors were unable to enter the institutions and ABS programming could not be adapted and continued during operation modifications,” she said. “Converting contractor funding to DOC staff positions will allow the department to continue ABS programming during other disasters or operational restrictions.”
Black also said converting contractor funding to DOC staff positions would give the department more flexibility including increasing classroom hours and allowing for more consistency between institutions if an inmate were to be transferred.
DOC director Colette Peters sent a letter addressing the situation Wednesday to Cam Preus, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association.
ODOC was already experiencing a projected budget shortfall of $110 million before the pandemic, Peters wrote, which has resulted in $25 million in layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.
DOC education contracts cost approximately $16 million every two years, Peters wrote. The department had received about $10 million in legislative funding and the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission contributed another $2 million, approximately.
“That leaves somewhere between $3 [million] and $4 million that we don’t have funding for,” the letter reads.
Peters said that DOC staff met with one of its contracted colleges, Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, to discuss the idea of the six colleges working together to create a proposal standardizing services.
“Treasure Valley was clear that such a proposal would not be forthcoming,” Peters wrote. “It was stated unequivocally during those meetings that the colleges are independent institutions and that the dynamics between colleges would not result in a unified proposal.”
Instead of receiving a proposal from the colleges, DOC has presented the community college association with requirements in order to continue the relationship. Those requirements include standardizing education programming hours across institutions, offering programming year-round and uniformly structuring and allocating compensation as a percentage of an institution’s capacity.
“Please know that if we were to continue with contracting, that all 14 DOC institutions would need to be served,” Peters wrote to Preus. “DOC will not agree to a hybrid approach whereby some institutions have contracted services and others not. We need a unified consistent approach.”
Preus said Friday that the six community colleges currently working with DOC are working to respond to Peters' letter.
“We are committed to continuing to serve Adults in Custody (AICs),” Preus told OPB. “Community colleges and DOC have a strong, longstanding, and successful relationship offering education to AICs and we remain willing to look at changes that meet the needs of those students and DOC.”
The Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers' union, is asking the DOC to reconsider the potential move to an in-house education program.
“For years, the Oregon Department of Corrections has worked collaboratively with faculty members at our state community colleges to develop and implement Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs at Oregon correctional facilities,” OEA president John Larson said in a statement. “This relationship gave the ABE population access to professionally trained educators and resulted in Oregon maintaining one of the highest GED completion rates for correctional institutions in the nation.”
He continued: “The DOC’s recent proposal to end this critical relationship threatens years of progress that have been made at our correctional facilities and will leave adult learners behind.”
OEA’s Larson noted that maintaining strong education programs is critical to reducing recidivism and reincarceration.
The Oregon State Penitentiary had brought its Adult Basic Education program in-house from 2003 to 2006, Larson said, and “successful completion of programs declined by about 50%.”
“This is not the solution,” Larson said in his statement.
Peters has given Preus and the colleges a deadline of Oct. 14 to agree to the requirements, or for DOC to move forward with its proposal to bring the education programs in-house.
Regardless of the decision, Black said ODOC intends to continue providing Work Based Education vocational training, and to work with community colleges to expand that. It also intends to continue providing inmates college-level course work through Pell Grants or self-pay.