Within the first week of the new year, an inmate at the Arrendale State Prison in Habersham County earned her high school diploma while behind bars.
Needing to brush up just a tad on social studies, she is the first graduate of the program that began Monday to allow young inmates to obtain high school diplomas.
“She only needed one course, so she was able to study up on that content material (and) take the state’s high school graduation test for that area,” said Buster Evans, assistant commissioner of education for the Department of Corrections.
Statewide, a self-reported 26,743 inmates, more than half of the total population of 53,086, did not have a completed high school education, according to statistics provided by information specialist Susan Megahee. Some 2,764 inmates did not report their education levels.
The program identified around 300 female inmates younger than 22 who would be eligible to participate in the program, Evans said.
“The maximum amount allowed into the program at this time is 40 inmates,” Megahee wrote in an email. “The department is looking to increase that number as the program progresses.”
Reasons for the limit, Evans said, is partly due to technology and space requirements, as well as demand.
“If it does work and we have the demand, we can grow it,” he said. “But again, seeing as this is new territory for us in correctional education in Georgia, we wanted to start at a scope that we felt like we could be successful at.”
The program provides evening classes that are completed online in a system known as NovaNet. Students are able to move at their own pace, Megahee said, while teachers from the Mountain Education Center Charter School are on site. The charter school is a collaboration of instructors from Forsyth, White, Lumpkin and other Northeast Georgia counties.
“While much of their content is online, there is a teacher — a certified teacher in that content area — in each of their rooms,” Evans said.
If inmates earn a passing rate of 80 percent, Evans said, they can take any requisite testing, like the Georgia High School Graduation Test or End of Course Testing for the subject.
Literacy, Evans said, is key to reducing recidivism, in addition to boosting their job opportunities with a high school diploma.
“Even our inmates who never get a GED or high school education, helping those who don’t read very well get to read better is important,” he said.
The first class in the program includes 34 female inmates, some moved from other facilities to the Habersham County facility. The idea may carry over to other programs such as auto mechanics and electrical programs that teach job skills.
“Instead of trying to put a welding program in every different prison in the state of Georgia, we may have three or four locations where we’re doing that particular program. ... We’re able to move our student inmates to where the programs are as opposed to trying to have to replicate those all across the state,” Evans said.
Evans said he would be “elated” if the program yields 20 graduates in the first year, adding that expectations will be modified as the program progresses. It’s hard to tell, he said, based on the individualized pace of the program.
“If they’ve got two years with us and they’ve got a fairly good reading level, we can work with them for a passing rate that will help them hopefully be able to get their high school diploma,” Evans said.