Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has a big job. He's responsible for the country's largest local jail jurisdiction, which held more than 160,000 inmates last year alone.
But Baca isn't interested in locking up criminals and throwing away the key; he wants to give them an education.
His Education-Based Incarceration initiative focuses on promoting intellectual growth in prisoners, he tells Guy Raz, host of Weekends On All Things Considered. Baca wants inmates to use jail time to study for success once their sentence is up.
Menial jobs aren't the best way for inmates to spend their time in prison, Baca says, because "that's not what gets you a job outside the jail." What does is reliability, he says, and proving "you're smart enough to be trained in a new job."
The program launched this year and has about 2,000 inmates participating in the beta phase. Once incarcerated, individuals are given academic evaluations. Correctional personnel then create a personalized curriculum, which ranges from basic reading and writing skills to core subjects like science and history. It's a mixture of classes and reading materials, plus newer learning tools like MP3 players with pre-loaded lectures.
Baca wants his prisoners to accomplish more than academic achievement. He wants the program to equip inmates for a better life outside prison walls. Courses in life skills like leadership and decision making give time in prison a constructive purpose.
"They are learning a different way of how to assess their time as they are serving time in jail," he says.
The ultimate goal of Baca's program is to prepare prisoners for a crime-free life, so they don't land back behind bars. California has the highest recidivism rate in the country, 67.5 percent in 2010. Baca sees his program as a way to hopefully reduce that number in the long run.
Right now, only Los Angeles County uses Education-Based Incarceration, but Baca knows for the program to truly be a success, the state jails will have to follow suit.
"My belief is that you can incarcerate a body, but you should never incarcerate a brain," Baca says. "The brain must develop regardless of what the environment is."
GUY RAZ, Host:
So this year, he launched an initiative that he hopes will eventually offer a full education to each and every inmate who wants one.
LEE BACA: Most prisoners are high school dropouts. Most of them didn't finish academically sufficiently at the seventh grade or less. And ultimately, what we have is an adult with a child's mind of development. And what I'm trying to do is to have the adult become adult in their mind with all of the intellectual skills that one needs to survive these days.
RAZ: Now, I know it's still in the beta phase. You're still - you've just launched it, but you're working with several universities in the LA area. I mean, how does a prisoner become educated? What kinds of courses are offered to a prisoner, for example?
BACA: You know, not to make a joke here, but attendance is perfect in these classes. And ultimately, they're learning a different way of how to assess their time as they're serving time in jail.
RAZ: This sounds like - almost like a liberal arts education that you're offering prisoners.
BACA: Most definitely it's a liberal arts education. And of course, our belief - and my belief is that you can incarcerate a body, but you should never incarcerate a brain. The brain must develop regardless of what the environment is.
RAZ: Why should taxpayers want to pay for these prisoners, these kinds of people to get these sorts of benefits?
BACA: Our system is not involving taxpayer dollars to the extent of the education piece. We use Inmate Welfare Fund dollars that the inmates themselves generate. So it's not costing additional to educate these individuals other than what they pay for.
RAZ: Now, according to California's own Department of Corrections, your state has the highest recidivism rate in the country. Two out of every three inmates in California will return to jail.
RAZ: I'm assuming your hope is that this program will reduce that rate? What kind of evidence is there to support that?
BACA: If I don't start the education, cultural shift in the local jail, the state is not going to be incentivized to carry on the education mandate that I've set locally.
BACA: Well, you can't prepare a person six months before they're released to function in a free society. You have to prepare them the minute they start the local jail incarceration, the state prison incarceration, and then they're prepared to come out better tooled-up, as they say, to live a positive, crime-free life.
RAZ: Given that most prisons in this country offer some kind of basic adult education, but all the evidence shows that just a fraction of inmates take advantage of these programs, why do you think this one will be different?
BACA: And in fact, this education-based incarceration could be an incentive for people to further their knowledge and then further their reliability and perhaps even get a little reduction on their sentence if they do well academically.
RAZ: Sheriff, thanks so much.
BACA: My pleasure, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.