When Troy James was in the prison system as a young adult, he knew he wanted a better life for himself and his young family.
He had been in and out of the system since he was 15, right past what should have been his high school graduation day. He tried to keep up with schooling, but accessing teachers was difficult. Then he heard about an education program at Ford Mountain Correctional Centre and everything changed for him.
He fought to get accepted into Ford Mountain, approached the program’s teacher, Doug Fraser to get started in the program, and learned that he could be a good student. Once he graduated, he became a tutor just to stay in the program with Fraser. Together, they got him into the UFV carpentry program following his release, and today he is a successful tradesman and supports his family of four.
James told his inspiring story to the Chilliwack Board of Education in January 2020, as part of a presentation about the successes and challenges the program faces. He is just one of 156 inmates that graduated from high school at Ford Mountain from 2008 to 2020.
At that meeting, board members told Fraser that they would help support his program in any way they could.
And now, the board is doing just that, by requesting a new funding policy that would ensure inmates at Ford Mountain can continue to study.
Chilliwack is one of a handful of districts across the province that partner with BC Corrections to provide a high school graduation program for medium security inmates. Over the past 10 years, the local program at Ford Mountain Corrections Centre has cost the school district a total of just over $300,000. That is money over and above the funds allocated from the Ministry of Education under the Continuing Education funding model. There have had more than 1,300 registered students and enjoy a participation rate that varies between 30 and 50 per cent.
It’s a very popular, successful program that has proven to lower recidivism in the community. Half of those who graduate from the program don’t end up back in the system, Fraser said in 2020. He’s worked that out to equal 570 person years of that were not spent in prison, since he began teaching at Ford Mountain in 2008. That equals a savings of more than $45 million for the province.
However, as reported previously by The Progress, next year’s school district budget is going to be tight. And that puts the program in jeopardy.
So now the board is requesting that the program be run under “sustained special purpose funding to provide year-round educational services to correctional facilities being supported by public school districts.”
There are fewer than 10 districts in the province that have medium security facilities in their communities, and it’s up to each school board to decide if they want to continue the partnership year to year.
Currently, the funding is based on courses, which fluctuates sometimes daily in the prison system.
Fraser said he spoke with then-education minister Rob Fleming about the possibility of changing the funding model, but it never happened. As it is, he spends about 30 per cent of his work time recruiting students to increase funding, advocating for funding, and otherwise doing paperwork. That’s time he could be spending teaching, he said.
“All of us who work in the correctional centres are hopeful,” Fraser said at the January 2020 meeting. He paused to hold back tears. “There would never be a question on funding and we could focus on teaching and doing what we need to do.”
Trustee David Swankey brought the motion forward at the March 9 board meeting, and it was supported unanimously by the board, with Trustee Barry Neufeld absent.
The current funding model under Continuing Education results in “instability in funding and threat to the continuity of service,” he said in his report to the board.
In addition to asking the province for a new funding model, the board also mentioned they would talk about the program during budget talks this spring.
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