“Of the people who graduate while in custody, very few re-offend,” said Jail Commander Lt. Jerry Mora. “Now they have more opportunities, now they have a better job. There’s nothing wrong with delivering pizzas. A job is a job. But you can’t afford to support a wife and a family on that. That’s why they were out selling drugs. Now they can actually afford to take care of their families. They are coming out ahead.”
Tooele County Adult Education, with the help of a $19,000 federal grant, offers high school-level classes to inmates three times a week in a small room at the jail. Program coordinator Linda Conway said these classes are vital for many inmates because a majority of those who attend are under-educated.
“During the 2006-07 school year, 171 inmates were a part of the educational program offered at the jail,” Conway said. “Of those, 141 were performing below a ninth-grade level.”
In comparison, records show that only 91 inmates were a part of the education program in 2001-02 — which Conway said indicates that the program is benefiting more and more lives.
“We are definitely growing,” Conway said.
Instructor Marion Deware, who co-created the program with Conway in 1990, said education is key in helping inmates overcome the challenges that led them to commit crimes in the first place.
“There are a lot of people who have made a bad choice, and the only way out is education,” Deware said. “An education will provide a job to help them be contributing citizens.”
Mora said education also boosts self-esteem among inmates, which can be vital in reducing recidivism.
“Education gives inmates a boost of confidence,” Mora added. “For them this is the first part of change.”
Inmates who get their GED or high school diploma can also get close to 30 days deducted from their sentence, depending on what type of crime they committed. This can be a reason why some inmates choose to participate in the program, but Conway said until they really want it for themselves they typically don’t progress.
“Until they want the high school diploma or GED, they don’t get it,” Conway said. “No one else can motivate them.”
Deware said at times the program has had nearly 20 students crammed into its one small classroom.
Inmate Randy Baird, 30, who has been incarcerated for about six weeks, said while the classes are a needed break from the monotony of jail, he attends for other reasons.
“It will make me feel better about myself, knowing that I graduated,” Baird said. “I won’t have to lie on my job applications anymore.”
For inmate Steve Coughran, 27, who already has his high school diploma, the education classes help him continually stimulate his mind.
“I’ve been out of school for about 10 years now so it’s a nice refresher,” Coughran said.
Deware said for many inmates the one-on-one help that they receive in classes is something they have never experienced. For example, she remembers helping a man with reading some time ago. When she asked him if he would like someone to help him he couldn’t believe it.
“I’ve seen lives change,” Deware said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Some inmates may not be able to meet with the rest of the group because of the crime they committed, Mora said, but they can obtain school work from instructors and work on it on their own time. Conway said that there are also many inmates at the jail who have already graduated from high school and obtained higher degrees. These inmates can volunteer to work as tutors a couple of afternoons a week to help those in the adult education program get additional help outside of regular class time.
This year, six inmates obtained their high school diplomas at the Tooele County Adult Education graduation held May 30. Another four or five past inmates who chose to continue their education with adult education following their release also donned caps and gowns and received diplomas.
Conway said the success that comes from educating inmates, although hard to quantify in terms of recidivism rates, is evident in a small community like Tooele.
“I sometimes run into people at the grocery store and they’ll say, ‘You started teaching me at the jail and now I’ve got this job, and I’m married and have a family,’” Conway said. “It’s very rewarding.”