By Rebecca Elliott / Houston Chronicle
Bags of chips, pairs of tennis shoes, packages of Ramen noodles. Over the years, revenue from purchases made by inmates at the Fort Bend County jail's commissary have added up.
Now, the proceeds are financing an expanded correctional education program, complete with a new vocational training facility. Come January, the center, which cost an estimated $67,000, will house the jail's first course on heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC, taught by an instructor from the community college.
The class is the latest addition to the jail's education program - new GED and computer courses are already up and running - and it sets Fort Bend on a path to providing inmates with the kinds of educational opportunities often found in state prisons but less common in local jails, where populations are smaller and inmate sentences generally shorter.
"I think it's actually quite pioneering," said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of Stanford's Criminal Justice Center. It's not especially common, she explained, for county jails to partner with community colleges to offer long-term vocational training.
Although Texas' prisons are served by their own school district, jails such as Fort Bend's must plan and arrange funding for classes. Most research on correctional education is also prison-specific, leaving jails with few models.
At Fort Bend's detention center, which houses pre-trial inmates and those serving shorter sentences or awaiting transport to prison, correctional education is primarily funded by proceeds from the commissary, which sells convenience store items to inmates.