Lee Baca Wants to Educate L.A.'s Prisoners

In this Miller-McCune Q&A, Los Angeles County's top cop Lee Baca explains why he wants to offer an education to tens of thousands of prisoners.
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca wants to teach criminals a lesson — literally.

The top cop of America's most populous county is launching a new initiative aimed at offering education to every one of the 160,000 inmates who pass through his lockups each year. Liberal reformers have long advocated such a course, citing studies showing lower recidivism rates among prisoners who learn while locked up. But it's extraordinary talk coming from the man who runs America's biggest jail system.

Baca's Education-Based Incarceration initiative officially launched last year but is still in the planning stages. The sheriff's staff is working with academics from UCLA, Occidental College, University of La Verne, California State University, Los Angeles, and California State University, Long Beach, to figure out the best ways to develop and deliver a range of non-mandatory educational and vocational programs for inmates.

Miller-McCune sat down with Baca in his Los Angeles office to discuss the pros of educating cons.

Miller-McCune:The idea is for every inmate that comes through your jails to have some kind of educational experience?

Lee Baca: Correct.

That's pretty ambitious. What brought you to that idea?

What brought me to the idea were the realities of managing the largest county jail system in the United States, which feeds the largest state prison system in the United States. We have a 70 percent recidivism rate in state prisons. The question is, "Why is recidivism in California rampantly out of control?" And the simple answer is that if you incarcerate the body and the mind combined, you're basically protecting society while they're in prison, but you're not doing much when they get out. Because it's the mind that is the ultimate tool of success. Ninety percent of jail inmates will get out. They have to be better prepared while they're being incarcerated to think differently about the free world and their choices.

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Given what they cost the taxpayers in terms of crime and incarceration combined, I'm astounded that the public isn't clamoring for efficient educational opportunities in prisons. You can't do much about a deranged predator type. You can give them all the education in the world, but if they're a predator, they're a predator. But that's not even 1 percent of the jail population.

Now, the theory of incarceration has always been punitive in America. Lock 'em up, throw the key away. I'm very pro-punitive. I'm not suggesting changing any of the punitive components. But the experiences we've had with people who are incarcerated is that 90 percent are hungry for new knowledge. That's the point. They're willing to acknowledge their limitations in thinking. They flat-out are a very good student population.

When you talk about education, what do you mean specifically?

I'm talking about literacy, math, geometric skills. I'm talking about anthropology, psychology, history, philosophy, religion, grammar, spelling ... any element of knowledge. Now, I talk to a lot of parolees and incarcerated people. They stumbled along the way of traditional elementary and middle and high school. So we've got this system we're working on that will evaluate their educational achievements as they enter the system and start addressing deficits in it.

We don't have enough teachers. So we're using technology as one of the tools. We're planning to use the cell as a classroom and technology as the teacher.

What kind of technology?

We're looking at DVDs, closed-circuit TVs running educational programming from the Discovery Channel, self-instruction booklets, computers you can't get on the Internet with, MP3 players with prerecorded lectures. And we're looking at using inmates and staff as mentors.

It's self-selected subject matter. They take their own tests, and then they provide us with the results. Now, some of them will show phenomenal achievement, and some will struggle. But the nature of the experience is still moving in the right direction.

All I want is for the institution to open up the doors of knowledge to these individuals. So you've got to bring it to the cell.

On any given day, your jails hold nearly 20,000 people. You have a range of vocational, high-school equivalency and life-skills courses already in place, but at this point, only about 32 percent of your inmates get any kind of education.

Which is pretty high for a local jail. It takes awhile to get all the equipment, all the procedures in place, to get the inmates acclimated to daily study. We'll start doing some study as to how effective this is and whether we're reaching too high. But the truth is if you don't set a high goal, you'll never get a little one accomplished.

In the jails you've got an incredibly transitory population, people coming in and out all the time. Isn't that a problem?

It's an issue. But 80 percent go on to state prison. They don't get convicted until about an average stay of a year in the county jail. So I've got a starting point with them.

The average prison sentence is about eight or nine years. You can do a lot with that eight or nine years if you're in a learning track and you have unlimited educational resources. You can come out of there a totally different person.

But if you start someone on a program to get their GED or learn to read, and then they move on to state prison ...

The state prisons have to pick it up from there. I'm on the board of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. I know they're strapped with budget woes, but so am I. It's up to us to do this without asking the taxpayers for billions of dollars with which to do it. I'm trying to show this can be done in a way that's cost effective without building classrooms and adding teachers and all these other things. We have to stimulate their interest in broader subjects than the ones they brought with them to jail.

The idea of getting people to stop being criminals by educating them was very popular back in the '60s and '70s but has fallen out of fashion. Why?

Well, they were using the word "rehabilitation" as though you can tell a person, "I can change you." I'm not telling them that I can change them. I'm saying, "What you know will change you." It's not pounding license plates; it's not doing laundry work. Those are the traditional rehabilitation programs — put them to work, keep them busy, teach them some skills. Truth is, those are time-passing forms of work that keep the prison institution in order. I have all that. But I don't want my inmate cooks or printers thinking they're going to go out and become a cook or a printer. Some will do that, but it's such a small number.

The jails only have so many vocational opportunities, and there's not enough to satisfy the current demand. So I am not talking about rehabilitation. I am talking about education. They'll have to choose their survival mode when they get out. But if they have a stronger base of thought and wisdom and knowledge, they can choose their next step in life more effectively.

So it's more about changing their mindset than teaching them specific knowledge?

Right. I got my doctorate at USC in public administration, and I studied learning theory. You're not going learn anything if the tools of knowledge aren't in front of you. This is the big problem in the state and federal prison systems and the local county jails — we see prisoners from the perspective of anger because they victimize people. I understand that. I'm angry, too, that they commit these thoughtless crimes. But at the same time, you step back from being a victim and say, "All right, my car was stolen, my house was broken into, I want this person put in jail." Agreed. But when they get out, what do you want this person to be? Do you want this person to continue to victimize other people, or to stop it altogether?

The education initiative is being paid for from the Inmate Welfare Fund (fees paid to the county from businesses operating vending machines, pay phones and other services in jails). Is there enough money?

The point is we're working within our means. Yeah, there's enough to reach every inmate.

If you need stimulus money to do any damn thing creative, you'll never get anything done. I'm creating these mechanisms that are extraordinarily cost reductive. I'm not building out some monolithic educational institution based on some theoretical precedent on school construction theory. I'm saying the institution has to re-create itself from within. I'm building a system from within my confines. And it's all about giving prisoners educational tracks, learning domains that are helpful to the enrichment of their brain.

You've got to keep that mind working. Redemption doesn't occur when you get out of prison. Redemption occurs when you decide you no longer want to commit bad deeds. Then you're redeemed.

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