Shifting the Emphasis from Prison to Education: How Indiana Saved over $40 Million

By Modisett, Jeff | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 25, 2004 | Go to article overview

Shifting the Emphasis from Prison to Education: How Indiana Saved over $40 Million


Modisett, Jeff, Black Issues in Higher Education


States are facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Yet, despite these deficiencies in funds, state governors must assure their constituents that dangerous criminals will still be arrested, adjudicated and imprisoned. Experience shows that the best way to ensure public safety efficiently over the long run is to spend less on incarceration and more on education.

This emphasis on education to enhance public safety is difficult to shape into operational terms. How can a governor transfer scarce state funds from corrections to education without causing a political crisis?

Indiana faced just such a situation in the late 1980s and serves as a prime example of how states can achieve critical education goals despite extreme budget shortfalls.

In 1988, the State of Indiana elected Evan Bayh as Governor. He promised to simultaneously hold the line on taxes, rid the corrections department of long-standing corruption, and protect the public. He asked me to be his executive assistant for public safety.

I had experience as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, which included serving as the deputy chief of the Government Fraud and Public Corruption Unit. This enabled me to help the governor tackle the prison resource transfer issue. Governor Bayh was precise about his expectations and my operational constraints:

* Protect the public;

* Work within a smaller budget;

* Honor prison legal mandates;

* Shift prison budget resources to other government mandates (education); and

* Ensure accountability at all levels of the corrections department.

This would be no easy task under any circumstances, but at that time the problems faced by Indiana's corrections department included:

* Corruption and inefficiencies;

* Costly and ineffective prison health care;

* Overcrowding;

* Juvenile inmate deaths;

* Disgruntled staff;

* Split party legislature; and

* Negative media.

Yet, despite our problems and challenges, I was convinced that a model for freeing state revenues for education initiatives could be created. This step-by-step model included 10 critical components.

Step 1: Change the image of the corrections department with new leadership.

First, we selected Jim Aiken as our new commissioner of corrections. A graduate of an HBCU (Benedict College), be understood the legal mandates and constraints confronted by a modern corrections official and knew how to translate correctional management concepts into "bottom line" results.

Aiken, from the South Carolina prison system, had held positions ranging from drug counselor to warden of the state's penitentiary. He had also supervised 16 prisons and was a national prison expert.

Just a few days before Aiken began his new job, an Indiana inmate on an early release program bludgeoned his wife to death. Accordingly, although Aiken confronted an Indiana corrections department that was in the midst of a public firestorm, the governor insisted that the mandate to save and transfer monies remain unchanged.

Step 2: De-emphasize political affiliation and seniority in hiring.

Under Aiken, an employee's party affiliation within the department became nearly irrelevant.

We also did not give undue weight to a person's seniority in the agency. Instead, we focused on finding people who were highly motivated and innovative; consequently, we were able to ask hard questions without getting answers shaped by the employee's previous "considerable years of prison experience."

Step 3: Critically analyze the current situation.

Aiken and I objectively reviewed the entire prison system. We reviewed media clips, incident reports, agency investigations, budget requests and conducted analyses of every conceivable issue. Our assessment found: Money was being spent before anyone could track why and for what reason; the inmate classification system focused on overcrowding, not public protection; factions between different work shills, departments, and prisons lead to discord costing money and lives; components of the agency were not exchanging information causing critical events to occur; the inmate population and disgruntled staff were able to manipulate the public through the media; a segment of the inmates had developed a power base at several prisons (they controlled the inmate population by intimidation and violence). …

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