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One pencil, one piece of paper, one open and attentive mind, and at least one person's belief that anyone can change through the power of education, that is all eight inmates inside the Saline County jail said they need. A chance to prove to you, their families, and most importantly themselves, that lives and communities can be transformed.
"If I learn to do something else ... when I get out, I can do something to benefit myself in a better way than coming back in here," those are the words of one of the eight inmates that sit in group atmosphere every Tuesday and Thursday night for the new General Educational Development (GED) program. Another inmate said that many "people come in here with no kind of education at all," but also added that this program "is a blessing ... and we can set goals to achieve."
The program is a partnership between the Saline County Adult Education Center and the administration of the Saline County jail. This program was started, and is maintained, at no cost to the tax-payers, Jail Administrator Lt. Don Birdsong and Sheriff Bruce Pennington said. Yvonne Dougherty, director of the SCAEC, is providing all the GED program materials, including the teachers, for free.
The inmates also get a chance to not only earn a GED â€” if they score 600 points or higher on the GED test â€” they will qualify for a full-paid two-year scholarship to Pulaski Technical College. Even if the inmate moves on from the jail to a prison facility, the inmate can still take college courses via www.pulaskitech.edu. Birdsong said "we received permission from the Arkansas Department of Correction and the U.S. Marshals Service concerning the federal prisoners."
"According to Ms. Dougherty, the Adult Education Center will also be able to present classes free of charge that will help deputies become more proficient in their report writing skills," Pennington said. "She was very receptive to this program. She knows without that education, people's hands are tied now days. We are excited about working with the (SCAEC) and obtaining more training for our personnel too."
The inmates also know what is at stake to lose.
"I am not trying to put the blame on anyone but ourselves, but some of us never had that opportunity to take college courses," an inmate said. "This (program) is something that a lot of people in our lifestyle never gets a chance to get, whether we've been doing drugs all our life or whatever the crime is that we are in here for."
Another inmate added, "I want to show appreciation to people with a degree, no matter where I get it from."
The only cost tax-payers are asked to give is to let the program prove it's worth to a community. Birdsong, the sheriff, Dougherty, teachers like Cindy Green, and eight inmates believe in the program. All they want is for you to believe in it too.
"I think it is a blessing that Lt. Birdsong got us this program," an inmate said. "Jail is a dark, gloomy, depressing place as it is and if we can come out of here with some kind of goal to achieve, I believe that is a good thing."
Pennington added, "If we can help these people get an education then maybe we won't see them in here again. It is almost impossible for someone without a high school diploma to get a good job. While they are here with us, maybe it's a starting point for them to better themselves, and I just want to afford them the opportunity to do so. So far we have eight inmates in the program. That's a good start."
Birdsong said a survey from the inmate population shows that 24 people are asking to join the program.
People Like Me
Today eight inmates have an opportunity to leave behind the crime ridden, drug infested streets that put them into the cold, lonely cell in the first place and exchange it for knowledge. This is their chance to exchange that past life of robbing people of valuable possessions, innocence, and pride for a life full of laughter, love, and healing.
People like the female inmate at the Saline County jail that drew numerous and elaborate Valentine's Day cards with nothing but sheets of white paper and flavored Tootsie Roll wrappers. Pennington even told her that "you are only restricted in your goals â€” by you. You have a God-given talent and it's obvious."
Some of the inmates in the program also have families. If they can prove to themselves and their family that they can change in a positive manner, it can open the door to other inmates to change. Thus, the cycle begins.
"I have two daughters and I am looking to moving forward in my life instead of backwards," an inmate said.
Another inmate added, "I wanted to get into (the program) as soon as I heard about it, so I can further my education when I get out. I plan on getting back in school when I get out."
This is also an opportunity for the eight inmates to open doors that heal broken hearts, that inspires, that lends hope, and to show that all people can change, no matter how many times they've been broken. Or broken other people's lives. People like these eight inmates that society may have given up on, but the jail administration has not.
"I don't look at you all any different than what I look at anyone else," Pennington said. "You've just had a bump in the road. But it's nothing that you can't make better."
The inmates said they understand that the road to a positive change won't be easy. They said the scholarship "is something we look forward to." The inmates, however, have to put into the program just as much as the teachers and jail staff are allowing them.
"A person like me, with the type of charges I got, it's kind of hard for me to get financial aid like a pell grant," an inmate said. "I am trying to get that GED scholarship to help me out."
Another inmate said, "If I had a degree, I could pursue a career, get a paycheck and take care of my family the way that productive citizens are suppose to."
One inmate wants to be an electrician, another wants to be a Registered Nurse, and a few inmates want their skills polished so they can get any job available. Some of the inmates said they are tired of living in jail cells. Sometimes they just need guidance to help them not only leave jail now, but to learn how to never return.
"I haven't had a regular job in about 10 years," an inmate said. "I have a GED but it's about 15 years old. So this (program) is refreshing my math skills, because even to get a job at a convenience store you have to take a test on math skills and things. If you mess up with someone's money, you aren't going to have your job very long."
Another inmate added, "Just sitting in a pod â€” which is what we call the jail cell â€” all day it kind of makes you feel like what you have learned (in the past) is basically leaking and leaving you. You have to use (education) or you'll lose it. I believe that math and science are very, very important to life. Math and science changes everyday and you have to grow with what is going on. I got my GED about 4 years ago, so it is good to refresh and find out the new information. I might even learn something new."
Then there are some inmates that never had a proper education. Some inmates said if they had a good education earlier in life, they may not be where they are today.
"I definitely know that if I had an education earlier, I would be doing different things (today)... maybe I wouldn't have been doing the drugs and doing the crimes that I was doing," an inmate said. "I never was given the chance to go to college, whether it was because of finances or being sidetracked. I think this (program) is a positive thing that may help someone get their foot in the door to change their life. If you can leave this place with something positive, that can be an inspiration for other people, and our children."
People Opening Doors
For these eight inmates, and future inmates, teachers like Cindy Green are dedicated to helping them become better educated.
"The students were receptive and eager from the beginning," she said. "The students are excited, they enjoy coming to the classroom and they love the fact that someone wants to come and help them. They are even excited for me to read the Charles Dickens classic 'A Tale of Two Cities.'"
Birdsong and Pennington said the atmosphere in the jail is also changing, or rather they are just emphasizing to everyone â€” jail staff included â€” what they have long believed. The sheriff said he wants everyone to "treat each other in a civil manner."
"The changes that I want to make benefits not only us as at the Sheriff's Department, but people that are being housed here as well," Pennington said. "I don't want anyone in the face of my jail staff, but on the flip-side of that, I don't want them doing that to you either. Conditions in a detention facility is bad enough already."
He added, "You're locked in here, tempers sometimes run high, emotions run high sometimes ... the last thing we need is for anyone to agitate you. In the past, it may have (been bad), but in the future it ain't happening. We are just not going to do that. But on the flip-side of that, if you get in one our (staff member's) face, it ain't going to be pretty either."
After the inmates in the GED program shook their heads in an agreeable manner, a few praised the jail administration. The inmates know they have to be the ones to change and are thankful for the opportunity to better their lives, as well as others.
"I'm ashamed to say it, but I've been locked up, incarcerated in several facilities. This is probably one of the only (jails) that I've seen this type of blessing," an inmate said. "It's a blessing. This is something we can take with us to further our education and we can set goals to achieve. I appreciate everything that goes into this program."
Another inmate said, "A lot of us go back to our old ways (of crimes), if we don't have any new outlets, because there is nothing to do but what we did in the first place. But I believe that you pass through the death of Jesus and there is a new life. I believe that what you learn and whatever direction you choose with guidance, God is opening doors for you."
The sheriff and Birdsong also praised the eight inmates. They said there is hope that future inmates enter the program and that all that participate will change to a more positive, successful life."
"I am really proud of you for doing this. It means a lot and I am proud of you," Pennington said. "You are all well aware that without an education there isn't a whole lot you can do. You have to have the basics anyway, either a GED or a high school diploma or no one is going to hire you. I want to see you all do better. Get back into your communities and be productive. And with this GED program, you can be (successful)."
Birdsong added, "I've been with you all on this program from day one and I am so proud of you all. I don't want you all in here any longer that I have to have you, but I sure am going to be proud at that first graduation that takes place and you all are going to do it."
For more information, call the Saline County Sheriff's Office at 303-5609.