The choir belted out a song of redemption from a rickety chapel in a place where salvation can be hard to come by.
The room quieted when Stacy Singleton, a convicted murderer sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison, strode to the pulpit to share a lesson with about 50 other fellow Arrendale State Prison inmates who were about to receive a certificate in theology studies.
“In this ugly place of oppression, this maximum-security prison surrounded by guards and barbed wire, I am no longer oppressed,” she said, her voice crackling with emotion. “I’m finally free. Free to be me.”
The next phase in the overhaul of Georgia’s criminal justice system is taking shape here through a series of ambitious programs aimed at making sure inmates released from these cells never come back and those fated to spend their lives behind bars have something more to strive toward.
It’s been sold to skeptical conservatives as more than a moral imperative. A state criminal justice council credited the changes with eliminating the need for 5,000 more prison beds over the next five years, saving the state more than $250 million.
The chapel where students received advanced certificates for their theology studies was at the center of a hive of activity that’s set to grow with a $12 million infusion of state cash for prison education initiatives set aside this year by Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers.
Across Arrendale’s sprawling campus, students studied for their high school diploma at a new charter school that Georgia officials hope to use as a model for an expansion. Elsewhere, inmates are preparing for their GED coursework, learning how to fix leaky diesel engines and practicing how to rewire tricky circuits.
“We’re giving hope to people who are incarcerated so they have a better future and make better decisions when they are here,” said Buster Evans, the state prisons department’s first education czar. “This is the first time in a long time — if ever — they are doing something they are proud of.”
About 70 percent of Georgia’s inmates don’t have a high school diploma, and many of those released from prison will have little else on their job resume but a felony conviction. Deal and his allies say the lack of education only contributes to the state’s stubborn recidivism rate, which hovers around 30 percent.
The next phase of Georgia’s criminal justice changes is aimed at changing that.
That initiative, launched last year by Deal, focuses on better ways to rehabilitate inmates who are serving prison sentences and smooth their transition as they re-enter society.
He signed a “ban the box” executive order in February to prohibit questions about criminal background for people applying for most state government jobs. His spending plan includes funding to hire 48 more staffers for prison classrooms, create a statewide GED fast-track program and add more learning centers in prison, and bolster the diesel-mechanic and welding vocational programs.
“Our prisons have always been schools. In the past, the inmates have learned how to become better criminals,” Deal said. “Now they are taking steps to earn diplomas and gain job skills that will lead to employment after they serve their sentences.”
The vocational training programs and GED coursework already underway at state prisons will be expanded, as will the charter school program that gives inmates a shot at a full-fledged high school diploma.
Mountain Education Charter School has yielded five graduates since it began operating in January at Arrendale, an all-women prison. The charter program is set to open a separate school later this year at the all-male Burruss Correctional Training Center.
Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which studies criminal justice, said Georgia is among only a handful of states that have launched charter schools in state prisons. He called them one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism.
“The statewide scale of Georgia’s initiative stands out and should be commended as yet another area of corrections reform where Georgia is leading the way,” he said.
Among the program’s inaugural students is Krystal Almaraz, a 20-year-old inmate who was sentenced to 20 years in prison when she was 17. She talks about the high school program with a note of awe and dreams of going to college when she’s out.
“This is the best thing that’s happened to me since the day I was incarcerated,” Almaraz said. “This was a second chance. And second chances only come once. I never thought prison would be a pathway to education.”
Camelia Ponce, a 22-year-old from Bartow County, sat beside Almaraz with her head in the books. She’s been in prison since October on theft charges, and she wants to make sure she never returns when she’s sprung free as soon as 2017.
“This is a game-changer,” said Ponce, who now has her eye on college courses and a degree in architecture. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get my diploma and, if not for prison, I don’t think I would have gotten it. And now I’m dedicated to doing better. Because I don’t ever want to come back here.”
Lori Fogle, Arrendale’s chief counselor and the liaison to the charter school, said competition for the school’s coveted seats is growing as inmates share stories about intensive tutoring and devoted teachers.
“These inmates will end up back in everyone’s neighborhood,” Fogle said. “And if we give them an opportunity, maybe they won’t come back here.”
Pit bulls and pitfalls
Decades of tough-on-crime policies and the War on Drugs helped swell the nation’s prison populations. High recidivism rates and strained budgets pushed states to look at changes, and many conservative Southern states have led the charge.
Texas made a statement in 2007 by beefing up its treatment and diversion programs, showing others that such things were possible in a massive conservative state. National figures from the left and the right came together to endorse such efforts, which started to spread to more states in the region.
Changes in Georgia’s criminal justice system, now in their later stages, are underpinned by a Rand Corp. study released in March. The study, which Evans cites repeatedly in an interview, found that inmates who receive their GED certificates or high school diplomas sharply reduce their risks of reoffending once they are released.
It also concluded that vocational training programs could offer prisoners the best shot at jobs after their release. At Arrendale, scores of inmates take courses in electrical work, equestrian training, pet grooming and auto mechanic classes.
That’s the hope for Tyeisha Marshall, a 31-year-old who has served about seven years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder. Over the past seven months, she’s trained seven abused and neglected dogs and prepared them for new owners. At the moment, she’s working with a pit bull named Fluffy marked with the scars and flaws of a rough life.
She sees a lot of parallels between her and her furry charge.
“This has meant the world to me. I was at a stagnant place. There’s only so much you can do in prison,” Marshall said, tugging Fluffy’s leash as she spoke. “This gave me meaning. I felt I could be good at something.”
The governor has suggested that he plans to beef up prison education coursework later in his second term. And Evans is at work preparing for more programs, including a push to help the 2,500 or so military veterans in Georgia prisons use the GI Bill to take college courses.
“It takes prison for some people. But once they’re here, they’re free of some of that clutter, that junk that held them back,” Evans said. “It’s a chance to rebuild.”
That word — rebuild — has become Amanda Momin’s mantra. The 23-year-old had been in and out of jail for years on drug and theft charges until she hit a new low in October. A botched drug deal led to a high-speed police chase and a crash she was lucky to survive.
She was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence. Her 5-year-old son was sent to live with an aunt.
“I knew it would take something drastic to change me. My mom passed away from using meth. That didn’t change me. My son was taken away. That didn’t change me,” she said. “But coming here, this is hard. This is really hard.”
She set her goal on architecture — the third of more than a dozen inmates interviewed who wanted to pursue that path.
Momin said that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Sometimes,” she said, “you have to start from the bottom and build up.”
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Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.