History and Description of the Arkansas Correctional School
The first formal education program in Arkansas prisons was begun in 1968. The England School District started a night program at Tucker, and the Gould School District started a night program at Cummins. These were limited in their outreach, but they were a step in the right direction. These programs continued for several years.
In 1973, the General Assembly passed Act 279 which established a school district within the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC). The purpose as stated in the act was to provide “elementary, secondary, and vocational-technical education to all persons incarcerated in the Department of Correction facilities who are not high school graduates, irrespective of age…” The Board of Corrections serves as the school board for the School District.
The ADC School District had nine teachers its first year — four at Cummins, two at the Women’s Unit, and three at Tucker. The average daily attendance the first year was 315. As of the 2023-2024 school year, the district has eleven principals, 50 licensed classroom teachers, 23 career technical education staff, and eight central office administrators and support staff. There are currently 21 sites that have Arkansas Correctional School District personnel providing services to inmates and parolees.
The school has made consistent progress over the years. In 1973, there was compulsory attendance for those inmates who scored below a fourth grade level on a standardized test, and who did not have a high school diploma or GED. The school board began raising the compulsory level in increments so that by September 1997, compulsory attendance was required for inmates who do not have a high school diploma or GED.
The idea of compulsory school attendance for adult incarcerated felons has been challenged in the federal courts. In “Rutherford v. Hutto,” an inmate, James Rutherford, challenged the state’s right to force him to attend school. Basically, he contended that he had a right to remain ignorant. The court ruled that the state can require an inmate to attend school. Requiring school attendance is not unlike requiring an inmate to work while he is incarcerated. A year later, in 1974, another inmate, Samuel Jackson, filed suit against the state, basically stating that while the state can force an inmate to attend school, the state may not force an inmate to do schoolwork. In “Jackson v. Hutto,” the courts ruled if the state can force an inmate to work on the various jobs he may be assigned to do, then the state can take disciplinary action against an inmate who refuses to do school work. The state may not punish an inmate for not doing work he or she is unable to do. If an inmate refuses to do assigned work he or she is capable of doing, the teacher may take disciplinary action against the inmate.
Inmates normally attend school fifteen hours a week. At most units, inmates attend school for one-half day each day. At some units, adjustments must be made to the norm. Because of inmate work schedules or security status, some inmates may attend school one and one-half days per week, two full days a week, or several evenings a week. The ADC School District must be flexible in its offering of classes. Many scheduling problems must be met with creative scheduling. The primary goal is to remove as many barriers as possible between an inmate and the pursuit of his or her education. Because of this commitment, there are teachers who go beyond the standard classroom and go onto death row at Maximum Security Unit to work with death row inmates. There are teachers who go into areas where inmates are housed in individual cells to work with inmates who cannot or will not function in the regular prison population.
Inmates are placed in classes with other inmates who function on the same level based on their score on a standardized achievement test.
The Arkansas Department of Correction School District has some challenges other school districts do not have. Most of the prison schools have over 100% turnover of students each year. Because of the constant change of students, teachers must provide for an open entry, open exit style of delivery of instruction. In the lower levels, there is a heavy emphasis on the teaching of reading, language arts, and math. As the student progresses to higher levels, more emphasis is placed on the five areas tested by the GED test — Reasoning Through Language Arts, social studies, science, and mathematics.
In 2021, the state legislature choose to disband the Riverside Vocational Technical School and incorporate the career technical programs into the school district. Career technical programs are usually voluntary and students must have a history of good behavior to be eligible. Many of the programs were shortened allowing students to complete in less time. Some new courses were added with a barber school put in place for the 2023-2024 school year. Heavy equipment simulators were installed at two facilities. A roofing program providing training in both residential and commercial roofing methods was implemented in 2023.
A variety of instructional methods is used in self-contained classrooms. An instructor normally teaches all subjects to a group of students who are functioning on approximately the same academic level. Computer-assisted instruction provides a good supplement to classroom instruction. All schools have computer labs for supplement instruction and for GED testing. Most facilities have thin clients allowing students to get online in a safe environment for various career technical programs.
Instructors also use PowerPoint and Smart Boards for instructional purposes. Curriculum materials consist of books and material appropriate for the adult learner.
During the fifty year history of the school district, 26,881 inmates have earned their Arkansas High School Diploma (GED).