The Arizona Department of Corrections began doing something in November it hasn't done in years - it began offering recently released inmates classes on such things as substance abuse, developing job skills, following a budget.

Arizona's prison population growth rate has stabilized, so authorities have been able to dedicate additional funding to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison.

The Southern Arizona Correctional Release Center is just one program designed to reduce recidivism, however.

Long gone are the days when inmates would spend their days bulking up with free weights.

Nearly 18 percent of Arizona's 40,000 inmates are enrolled in some sort of an educational program, spending three hours a day in a classroom setting. The department's educational budget for fiscal year 2013 is $18 million.

It covers the tuition, fees, books, equipment and teacher salaries for the 1,500 inmates who are currently in a mandatory class that aims to ensure they have at least an eighth-grade education, the 2,900 who are working toward getting their general equivalency diploma and the 2,000 who are learning a trade.

It doesn't pay for the 650 other inmates who are taking correspondence classes. They pay their own way, whether it's with help from family members or through scholarships.

The prison educational system is key to helping inmates turn their lives around, said John Kinton, the bureau administrator of inmate programs. It, along with substance abuse treatment, sex offender counseling, religious programs and work programs, is designed to help inmates make the right choices, he said.

"We want to help them return a little more whole and prepared," Kinton said. "The staff here is very committed. We want people to know that not everything that happens in corrections is negative. We are doing a lot of positive things that directly impact the community."

When an inmate arrives, they are given tests to determine whether they meet the eighth-grade literacy requirement imposed by legislators, said Tim Lawrence, northern region education director.

If they do not, the inmate is required to attend mandatory classes. If inmates are below a certain level, they qualify for special education classes and a specialized plan is tailored for their needs.

Roughly 60 percent of inmates come in with a GED or high school diploma, but at any one time, between 200 and 300 inmates are in special education classes, Lawrence said.

Rio Salado College is one of many educational institutions that has a contract with the department to offer on-site courses. It also offers correspondence or "distance-learning" courses.

This year, 34 inmates have earned degrees from the college and another 674 have earned certificates.

Nearly 1,900 inmates have taken classes in the Lewis and Perryville prisons this year and another 1,000 have taken at least one distance learning course, said Delynn Bodine, public relations manager.

Inmates can take woodworking, electrical, automotive, graphic design, horticulture, computer and construction courses on-site, said Heidi Jaeger, administrative assistant for community development. They can take 90 distance-learning courses in such things as math, English, humanities, science, business and chemical dependency, Jaeger said.

The inmates who take distance-learning courses learn from textbooks, DVDs or CDs and mail in their homework, Jaeger said. When they watch the DVDs and CDs, a proctor is with them. Proctors also monitor their test taking, she said.

Pima Community College also has a contract with ADOC. Its educators go to the Wilmot complex and teach automotive technology, construction technology, computer applications technology, heating ventilation and air-conditioning technology, and solar panel installation technology, said C.J. Karamargin, vice chancellor for public information and government relations.

Pima Community College also has a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and offers basic business courses.

There are currently 340 inmates enrolled with PCC and roughly 150 inmates complete a program annually, Karamargin said.

Every year, 1,700 courses are completed and 3,700 credits are awarded, Karamargin said.

The prison doesn't keep track of individual inmates' academic accomplishments so it's unknown who might be the best-educated inmate within the system, said Bill Lamoreaux, a department spokesman.

Frank Jarvis Atwood, who has been on Arizona's death row 25 years for murdering 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson, recently said he's obtained two associate's degrees, a bachelor's degree in English/pre-law and a master's degree in literature.

All educators can take courses along with corrections officers, but safety isn't typically an issue, Lawrence said.

"In many ways they are safer than when they are walking down the street because if something happens, there's help right there," Lawrence said of the instructors. "Disruptions are far and few between, though."

Jaeger agreed.

"They all know what they are putting into jeopardy if they get into trouble," Jaeger said. "They may not be able to participate in classes for a lengthy period of time."

Inmates are usually able to put aside outside factors - gang affiliations, crime they committed, race, etc. - when they step into the classroom, Jaeger said.

Lawrence said inmates also realize if they can't get their GED or finish their mandatory literacy class, they won't be qualified for the higher paying jobs within the prison system.

Michael Pattarozzi, associate dean for community development at Rio Salado College, said their instructors work hard to develop a rapport with their students.

"We don't look at why they are incarcerated," Pattarozzi said. "We look at the person who walks into the classroom and we give them whatever support they need."

Perry Hill, the director of education at the Arizona Department of Corrections, said the inmates realize the more classes inmates take, the more competitive they will be when they come out.

"They really feel they have worth and something to offer," Hill said.

Money spent by the state educating inmates is well worth it when one considers the cost of housing them, said Sam Steinman, dean of business and work force development at Pima Community College.

"If just one goes through the program and doesn't come back, it more than pays for the program," Steinman said. "The benefit to the community is huge."

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or