In recent years, there’s been a movement afoot to lessen the impact of jail time. It includes rethinking sentencing guidelines and finding alternatives to imprisonment, along with striving for equity among those accused of crimes — as with the New Hampshire court system’s new bail reforms.
Then there’s the idea, not a new one, that while there will always — rightly — be a punitive focus to imprisonment, the actual time spent there doesn’t have to be wasted. It can be used for self-improvement, something that just might make a return less likely.
There are various programs that aim to help inmates at both jails and prisons better themselves. We noted one last fall: Books Before Bars, started by a Keene High senior from Winchester, aiming to supply inmates at the Cheshire County jail with books they’d actually like to read. Aided by the jail’s program director, Richard Durkee set about to survey inmates on what titles they’d like to read, then sought to provide those books for the jail’s library.
However, many of those likely to wind up behind bars aren’t avid readers. In fact, some can barely make their way through a book, or can’t read at all. Stocking a library is little help to those unable to use it. Others might want to learn skills to help them find work upon their release or simply become better-rounded, but lack the basic knowledge or learning skills to do so.
Those inmates can, perhaps, take advantage of another program at the jail, also relying on volunteer efforts. Keene Community Education — an offshoot of the local school district that offers everything from summer art classes to enrichment courses for senior citizens through Keene State College to drivers ed to high-school equivalency testing — also runs an educational program at the county jail.
Prison education programs aren’t anything new, although they’re more common at facilities where sentences are longer. The average inmate stay at the county jail is roughly 54 days — longer for the federal inmates the jail houses for a fee. That’s not a lot of time to complete a program.
The county jail has a number of rehabilitation or self-improvement programs for its inmates, and has had a volunteer tutoring program for decades. But this year is the first with a paid tutor. More than two dozen inmates have enrolled in the Adult Learner Services program since last July. Their goals vary. One has taken four of the five tests needed to attain his high school equivalency credential; his final test, in science, is today.
Some may try and fail, for a variety of reasons. Some may take a step forward. And some — although again, the time frame for the average stay at the jail is less than two months — may even get a leg up on college. The jail is talking to River Valley Community College about offering concurrent college credit through the Running Start or Bridge2College programs, which offer college credit for high school courses or reduced tuition for community college courses. It could involve River Valley courses being streamed to the jail just as other online learning options are made available.
Such credits wouldn’t be free, but could come at a reduced cost. And motivated inmates have at least one advantage: They have plenty of time to study.