Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles said today he would pump $1 million into a controversial "no-read, no-release" parole program that will begin in the state's prisons this summer.
Virginia would become the first state in the nation to tie reading ability to its parole requirements under the program, which Baliles proposed earlier this year. Although the federal prison system and state programs in Maryland, Tennessee and Arkansas require inmates to participate in education programs, they do not incorporate those requirements in their parole process.
"The emphasis on parole sets this apart," said Charles K. Price, superintendent of the Virginia prison school system.
Baliles revealed details of the plan, which sets a sixth-grade reading level as goal for parole, to an enthusiastic audience of 175 persons attending a regional conference of the Correctional Education Association here.
"What we are doing is not idealistic," Baliles told the group. "It is the essence of practicality . . . . We are going to reduce the rate of recidivism among our prisoners. We're going to make sure that they have the basic tools -- the ability to read and write -- that are necessary to survive."
The program, however, has been criticized harshly by some prison groups.
Charles W. Colson, the former White House aide and prison inmate who now heads Prison Fellowship Ministries, said in a telegram to Baliles that the plan is "an outrageous violation of due process . . . a frightening abuse of government power."
Baliles said his program is "not intended to serve as a barrier, but as a door . . . to law-abiding citizenship and gainful employment" for inmates.
"Crime and illiteracy go hand in hand," Baliles said. "If that condition, an inability to fill out a job application or write something as simple as a check, does not change during incarceration . . . [former] prisoners will ultimately return to what they know best: crime."
Although the program has been tagged "no-read, no-release," inmates who do not meet the sixth-grade reading requirements will not automatically be denied parole, Baliles said. The parole board will take into consideration the educational efforts made by the inmate, and will be informed of the progress of inmates who participate.
"As for those who decline to participate," said Baliles, "the parole board will notified of that too.
"Achievement is important," he said. "But so is attitude."
State officials estimate that more than a third of the state's 10,800 adult prisoners cannot read at a sixth-grade level.
Price said the prison system will need an additional 23 teachers to handle the expected increase of about 1,700 inmates in prison education program enrollments at the state's 14 major adult prisons and 25 correctional centers.
Randolph J. Shipe, principal at the Buckingham Correctional Center at Dillwyn, said voluntary enrollment at the prison's school increased from 80 to 110 inmates after Baliles' first mention of the program in February.
Baliles said prisoners already reading at or above the sixth-grade level will be exempt from the program, as well as "those who we cannot expect to function . . . because of a clinically diagnosed mental condition or other disability."
The testing of all prisoners on their reading ability is expected to be completed by May 15, the governor said. The expanded reading instruction program will begin by late summer.
A task force of corrections officials is developing guidelines for the program, Baliles said. After the guidelines are developed, inmates will be invited to participate in the reading program.
"We intend to get our prisoners in this program," said Baliles. He said the incentives for participation will be "substantive and attractive."
Prison education official Price said critics of the program have taken a simplistic view of the proposal when they label it a potential violation of constitutional rights or say it would result in some prisoners remaining behind bars beyond the time of court-ordered sentences.
Price said he believes neither fear will materialize: "We see this as promoting parole."
Baliles said that since he announced the program, a number of retired teachers and members of reading clubs have expressed interest in tutoring inmates "to help make this program succeed."