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SPRINGFIELD — Potential reductions to educational programs in state prisons could lead to an uptick in crime, a prison watchdog group says.

The warning comes as the Illinois Department of Corrections is scrambling to find an organization to provide vocational training to inmates at two southern Illinois prisons.

Southeastern Illinois College trustees voted last month to stop providing services at the Shawnee and Vienna correctional centers because it wasn’t being paid in a timely manner by the cash-strapped state.

The community college joined at least two other vendors that say they will not do business with the Department of Corrections until they are paid. The others are an eyeglass manufacturer and an ammunition dealer.

The budget approved by lawmakers last month doesn’t address the massive backlog, which is expected to top $5.5 billion this month.

“Everyone’s sympathetic to the situation. There’s just no money to pay us,” Southeastern board chairman Pat York said in a prepared statement.

The John Howard Association, which monitors prison-related issues in Illinois, says a decrease in educational offerings to inmates could increase recidivism rates.

“Numerous scientific studies have proven that education for inmates greatly reduces the likelihood they will commit new offenses after their release from prison,” the organization said in a release this week.

Southeastern is among a handful of community colleges that provide educational services to state prisons. Illinois Valley Community College, for example, provides services to Sheridan Correctional Center. Rend Lake Community College offers programs to inmates at the Big Muddy and Pinckneyville prisons.

Corrections spokeswoman Sharyn Elman wasn’t aware of any other colleges threatening to quit because they are not being paid for their work.

According to college officials, Southeastern had hoped to gain assurances of timely payments from the state, but the ongoing budget mess “resulted in too many unknowns and increased financial risk.”

Elman said Southeastern was asking for money up front to provide educational services.

“Southeastern asked for advance payments going forward, and (state) code does not allow us to do that,” Elman said.

 “We are currently in talks with another college and are hopeful that they will provide the service.”

Elman said a decision on what college will replace Southeastern could come quickly, allowing education programs to continue at the two southern Illinois prisons without a large gap in service.

“There really won’t be any down time,” Elman said.

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