Overview of New Mexico’s Prison Education Programs

By Christopher  Zoukis

The New Mexico prison system takes a comprehensive view of prison education; their educational programs are governed by the New Mexico Corrections Department Education Bureau.  The bureau works in conjunction with other agencies, organizations, and the community to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to obtain vocational and academic skills.  The aim of their programs is to reduce recidivism and help inmates become responsible and contributing members of society.  Image courtesy corrections.state.nm.us

Range of Educational Services

New Mexico offers many types of educational programs to inmates.  Parenting courses, English as a Second Language courses (ESL), vocational classes, employment related classes, and college-level coursework are some of the main features of their overall programming.  Placement exams allow bureau staff to effectively steer inmates to the programs that would most benefit them.  There are also programs to address special needs of incarcerated individuals.  Taking coursework while imprisoned allows the inmates to earn certifications, certificates, and even college credits.

Assessments Offered to Inmates

The bureau offers a wide array of exams that allow it to place prisoners in appropriate programs suited to both their level of education and demonstrated skills.  Some basic tests offered by the prison system include the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) that measures basic skills in reading, language, and math.  The test is standard in the education field and is suited to the diverse range of adult learners.  Once an inmate has taken the exam, staff members are better able to determine which types of programs would be most advantageous for individuals.

The Employability Competency System Full Battery (CASAS) assesses skills for the bureau’s vocational and post-secondary programming.  The Act WorkKeys exam also helps determine placement by assessing employability skills.  The Choices assessment takes inmates’ own preferences for future employment into consideration while also helping them determine careers that best meet their skill sets at the time of their assessment.  The Keytrain assessment relates to state employability and allows inmates to determine their eligibility for a range of employment options in New Mexico.  These are just a few of the assessments offered through the bureau.  There are others that determine college level placement, intelligence tests, and language deficiencies, for example.

Overview of Coursework / Programs

The pinnacle of the correctional education programs is its college initiative.  NM prisons allow inmates who meet the requirements to earn an Associate’s Degree through distance learning.  Depending on the prison facility, the distance learning initiatives may be offered through ENMU-Roswell, Mesalands Community College, New Mexico State University—Grants Branch, or New Mexico Junior College.  This college-level coursework allows inmates at the correction facilities to obtain a greater degree of employability upon their release from prison.

Whether addressing higher education or simply addressing basic adult literacy, the New Mexico plan seems to have wide range of programming in between.  However, not all coursework is academic in nature.  The bureau appears to view the entire person—not just their education level.  For this reason, they also present parenting coursework that allows inmates to develop their skills as parents of young and older children.  Family literacy classes help inmates to find their way back into family life upon their release. 

The vocational aspects of the New Mexico platform are also diverse.  Carpentry, food service, automotive, firefighting, and telecommunications are a few of the career-based coursework offered.  Inmates also have access to programming that provides them skills to overcome their background as offenders in order to gain employment.  There are many career-related skills that are taught to inmates that involve basic skills like creating a resume and the ability to sum up their career readiness during an interview situation.

Supplementing the Programs

To promote the educational success of inmates in New Mexico, the bureau has implemented various support programs that support the major educational components of each program.  For instance, there is a tutoring program that assists inmates in their studies.  There are also educational resource centers and platforms that allow inmates legal access.  Moreover, there is even a reentry resource center that helps inmates prepare for life out of prison.  In essence each tier of the New Mexico plan attempts to set up inmates for success.  The programs are challenging; however, there is help along the way to foster the inmates on their path to completing their classes and earning certifications and even degrees.

Assessing the Program

While the bureau offers these programs to inmates, they also take pains to assess the success of individual classes.  They carefully track recidivism rates among inmates as well as the classes and programs inmates had been enrolled in.  They use this information to continually improve the nature of their educational offerings and to determine which programs seem best linked to a reduction in recidivism. 

Like many other prison education programs, the New Mexico plan strives to provide inmates with the skills they lacked before their incarceration.  They ultimately believe that by allowing inmates the ability to obtain employment skills, they can more effectively deter them from returning to criminal behaviors upon their release.  Because their offerings are comprehensive, the bureau is able to assist a wide range of prisoners based on their specific educational needs.