In the fall of 1983, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) gave the District of Columbia six weeks to devise a plan for spending millions of federal dollars to educate and train D.C. prison inmates.
Specter said the program could become a national model for breaking the cycle of crime by offering inmates extraordinary opportunities to obtain a basic education and to learn vocations that would lead to jobs after they were released.
Yet nearly three years and more than $41 million later, critics charge that much of the so-called Specter Initiative has been a waste. Fewer inmates than expected have taken part in the program and many of those who did sign up have had trouble finding jobs after leaving Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail, according to experts familiar with the program.
Some of the officials involved in the program squabbled among themselves and fell behind in building facilities for the program. Expensive equipment purchased to train inmates was left unused for months. And little was done to enlist area employers to hire the graduates or to provide ex-convicts with follow-up counseling.
"Men coming out of Lorton have no greater measurable or tangible resources than they had prior to the initiative," said Margaret Nolan, executive director of the Washington Correctional Foundation, which studied the program. "That is the tragedy after millions of dollars. The men have no more than they had before."
National and local prison experts said the District government was ill prepared to manage a multimillion-dollar model program and was paralyzed at first by the size of the undertaking. Under pressure from Specter in the spring of 1984 to begin spending the funds after six months of delays, the city turned to a D.C. public schools official with no corrections background to run the program.
Last week Hallem H. Williams, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, acknowledged that the Specter Initiative, now under its third director, continues to be plagued by false starts.
"There was a marvelous opportunity. Very few states get this kind of money," said Osa D. Coffey, a nationally known correctional education expert and a former executive director of the Correctional Education Association. "There was a concern that if the District did not make good use of this, it would dampen the support for correctional education in general. I'm afraid it has done that."
Officials of the Department of Corrections declined to comment, and Specter, who is campaigning for reelection, did not respond to requests for an interview. Elizabeth Abramowitz, president of the program's leading outside contractor, PSI Associates Inc., did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
The D.C. City Council's Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on the program today.
While the hearing is expected to focus on current efforts to rehabilitate the program, outside experts suggest it will have an uphill fight to overcome the critical problems of the past. Those problems include:
*Clashes between the former head of the education program -- D.C. schools educator Margaret Labat, who was its second director -- and longtime corrections employes who believed she built an administrative fiefdom that duplicated services already offered in the department.
*A paucity of counseling and job placement services for inmates after their release from prison.
*Incomplete and unreliable data on Specter Initiative expenditures, inmate participation in the program and job placement.
*Poor management of materials such as computers and graphic arts equipment, which in some cases remained unused in boxes for months, as well as tardiness in building educational facilities.
*An apparent unwillingness to seek the help of experts in correctional education, who later charged that the program placed too much emphasis on educational efforts and not enough on job training.
A number of the criticisms of the program are detailed in a draft report by the Washington Correctional Foundation, an organization formed by local corrections activists in 1982 to improve services to inmates and ex-offenders. Several members of the organization have played a significant role in oversight of the education and job training program.
Nolan, the executive director of the foundation, said its members hope the initiative-related programs will improve under Gwen S. Washington, the D.C. corrections department's assistant director for educational services who replaced Labat after she announced late last year that she was resigning. Washington, a highly regarded corrections expert on loan for a year from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, joined the corrections department in February.
The foundation's draft report questions, in particular, the corrections department's statistical accounting for initiative-related spending and programs.
"Good information on how money has been spent, and with what results, is difficult to obtain," the report states. "There is some reason to believe that some of the limited data the department has produced is inaccurate and incomplete."
The report contrasts data provided in the corrections department's "Progress Reports" with information collected by a consultant hired by an advisory committee headed by former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. The advisory committee, on which Nolan served, was formed at the behest of Specter in early 1984 to prod implementation of the program.
While the corrections department's figures indicated that as of July 1985 there were 3,317 D.C. inmates enrolled in initiative-related programs, the consultant found that actual attendance at many classes was low. An informal census taken in mid-1985 showed that vocational classes in auto repair, typing and graphic arts were drawing just four to 10 inmates each. Attendance at other classes was similarly low.
In addition, knowledgeable sources said night classes, which were originally touted as a way to reach more inmates and expand the number of course offerings, have been suspended. The department said in July 1985 that the night school had an inmate enrollment of 773, but the sources said the night classes were canceled because of poor attendance. On some occasions, they said, teachers outnumbered inmates.
The foundation report, emphasizing the importance of job placement for inmates, also highlighted what it called a troublesome "vagueness in reporting job placements."
"As of early 1986, the department has not developed a data system that would make it possible to evaluate the success of the program," according to the report. The D.C. corrections department's Hallem Williams told Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.) in House budget hearings last week that the city has not developed data to track the success rate of job placements.
"In terms of definite figures, we are not prepared to give you a comprehensive picture at this point," he said.
On two occasions, Congress has indicated its concern about the program's slow progress by withholding funds. In August 1984, Congress initially appropriated only $6,215,000 -- about half of what was expected -- to indicate concern over the way funds for the initiative had been used.
"At times during the year the committee has been displeased with the pace of the programs' implementation and significant reservations have been expressed about the long-term goals, or lack of them, in planning documents," stated a report by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, which is chaired by Specter.
The balance of the money was given to the city later that year in a supplement to the budget. Congress also held back about $3.35 million in funds for the program this year, pending further review.
Delays in program development have been coupled with tardiness in the $9.9 million capital improvements tied to the Specter Initiative. The city estimated that classroom and shop buildings would be completed by the summer of 1985, and 20 trailers were purchased for about $900,000 to accommodate classes in the meantime.
Today, the building program has come to a halt. Concrete foundations, completed in the fall of 1984, sit empty inside Lorton's Central, Maximum, Youth Centers I and II and Occoquan I and II facilities. Corrections department sources say this is because the building program was underfunded and there is not enough money to complete construction.
At Central, where work on four buildings came to a standstill 18 months ago, a facility for electrical, carpentry, plumbing, automotive and computer shops is marked by a 240-by-180-foot slab of concrete.
The city also planned to open so-called Second Chance Centers in each of the city's eight wards to provide "focal points for personal adjustment and job readiness, educational and job counseling for ex-residents," according to a December 1984 progress report on the program. The centers were to open in July 1985.
The July 1985 progress report said the opening of the first center was "on its way to becoming a reality." However, sources said, the idea has now been abandoned.
The Specter Initiative originally was proposed at a time when Specter, a former district attorney, was pressing the District to adopt tough parole guidelines and build additional prison space. The education and vocational training program was viewed as a companion piece to his hard-line proposals, according to knowledgeable sources.
"I know it was totally unexpected," said Sean McConville, a British corrections expert and author of a highly critical report on the D.C. prison system issued early this year. "It was completely out of the blue. Somebody called up from Specter's office and said, 'Can you use this money?' "
Specter "was handing an already crippled prison administration yet another problem," he said. "My own feeling is that the District did not have the management capacity successfully to spend the money."
Following the initial delays, the city hired correctional education expert Coffey as a consultant to define goals for the initiative. However, Coffey said that when Labat was named to take over the program in March 1984, Labat "did not want any assistance whatever" and the consultant contract was aborted.
"She didn't have any expertise," Coffey said. "When I was asked to review the plan she made, I pointed out that it was essentially a public school plan, not a corrections program. It even referred to inmates as kids . . . . Everybody she brought in had a public school background."
Labat declined to comment.
Said McConville, "I think with money on that kind of scale they should have looked nationally for one of the consulting groups that are around."
Instead, in the spring 1984, the department contracted with PSI, a local firm with a growing reputation in counseling and management consulting but none in the corrections field, according to Coffey.
Serving as a hiring and management arm for the initiative, PSI received $2.3 million in payments from the department in the last three fiscal years, according to D.C. financial documents.