Behind barbed-wire fences and imposing guard towers, the painstaking work has begun across Georgia on building a new education prison system.
About 250 educators, administrators and other staffers have been hired to teach prisoners. Nearly 100 inmates have signed up for charter school courses. And 19 high school diplomas have already been awarded in a pilot program.
But the evolving program is about to face its biggest test. The first of what Gov. Nathan Deal envisions to be a statewide network of prison-based charter schools officially opened Thursday at the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Middle Georgia, and state policymakers and education analysts will carefully chart its progress.
Already, a pilot program known as the Mountain Education Charter School has shown success at a women’s prison in North Georgia. But a second phase launched Thursday forms the backbone of Deal’s plan to ensure that thousands of inmates released from cells in prisons such as Burruss never return.
“If you don’t have a high school diploma or you don’t have a marketable skill when you are released from prison, you’re not safe in our society. Desperation will set in,” the governor said. “And all of us will pay the price for that desperation.”
Deal and state lawmakers set aside more than $12 million this year to hire instructors and jump-start the prison charter program, known as the Foothills Charter High School. It will likely require substantial new funding to expand it throughout the state.
’All will not be successful’
The leaders of the program are bracing for the scrutiny. Buster Evans, the first education czar in the state’s prisons department, nodded to a row of the inmates who have already signed up for the program.
“We know that all will not be successful,” Evans said. “But for those who are, we know this is about more than getting a certificate or hanging up a diploma. It’s about changing lives.”
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 recidivism rate, which hovers around 30 percent.
Inmates in Georgia prisons have long been eligible to take GED coursework and vocational training programs for skills such as electrical work and culinary arts. But the charter school program gives them a first chance at earning a full-fledged high school diploma from behind bars.
Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, the head of the charter school, has spent months building the school’s framework. She and her deputies established a thick set of protocols for how to navigate the state-run prison system, hired and trained staffers, and tracked down prospective students.
Now, she told a group of incoming students on Thursday, it’s time for them to get to work.
“We believe in all of you. We want you to win,” she said. “And we want you to leave this facility with a high school diploma so you can provide for yourself and your family.”
Next step in criminal justice overhaul
For Deal, the prison education program is the latest phase of his efforts to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system that earlier aimed to keep lower-level drug offenders out of prison. And it could also be the trickiest.
Only a handful of states have launched charter schools in state prisons, said Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which studies criminal justice. And while some studies show they are among the most effective ways to reduce recidivism, they also require a long-term financial and political commitment.
Deal and his allies say they are willing to dig in. The governor signed a “ban the box” executive order in February to prohibit employers from asking questions about the criminal backgrounds of people who apply to most state government jobs. And his spending plan included money to hire 48 more staffers for prison classrooms this year and add more learning centers.
“These are individuals who have violated our laws and are suffering the consequences for it,” Deal said in an interview from the prison grounds. “If they are willing to show that they can change their lives, then it is our obligation to try to help them.”
The students at Burruss, a medium-security prison with about 800 inmates, take courses in white-washed classrooms in a squat building near a daunting guard tower. One of the first to sign up was Justice Kimbrough, who was barely a credit away from graduating from high school when he was convicted of burglary charges about a year ago.
“This program is giving me new chances,” he said with a smile. “I would never otherwise think I’d have the opportunity to be back in high school. I thought I lost my shot forever. And now I have a new chance.”
There’s a reason Kimbrough was so chipper. He became the program’s first graduate just a few days ago. And when he’s released from prison next year, he plans to bring his diploma to prospective employers with one goal in mind.
“I never want to come back here.”
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