Jail’s education program benefits society, commander says
The education room at the Summit County Jail could belong in a typical high school. Rows of long, gray tables face a whiteboard with a "life values" poster taped to it, and faded marker streaks reveal remnants of previous math or English classes.
But the students here earn more than just a diploma. For many, education programs offered through the jail can mean a new start to a better life.
Summit County’s jail commander, Captain Kyle Lewis, who also directs the facility’s education programs, said having better-educated inmates benefits society as well.
"It’s very important," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "Once the inmates get out, if they’re not using drugs, they have better jobs and they feel better about themselves, then they’re being more productive in society."
Sheriff Dave Edmonds had this concept in mind when he introduced the Peak Readiness program, an outline the jail purchased as a guide to help inmates reenter the workforce with stronger job skills and healthier mindsets. The eight-week program has focuses on lifestyle changes and offers classes in goal setting, financial management and career development. Since it began in January, the program has graduated 12 inmates.
"We like to use the analogy of a toolbox," Lewis said. "Our main objective is to see inmates leave with tools they can use to better all areas of their lives."
Classes are voluntary and open to all sentenced prisoners, including the 15 or so immigrants held at the jail.
Offshoot programs have also developed to supplement the curriculum, including one run by volunteers from the Summit County Library. Dan Compton, the Information Services Librarian, taught community computer courses but had never worked with inmates when Lewis approached him about taking his skills to the jail.
"I thought it was a great idea," Compton said. "I was on board from the beginning, and the response has been pretty positive so far."
Compton teaches men and women separately for one hour a week, covering Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher in five sessions. Library clerks Dee Logan and Sam Dyal assist him. Compton said that inmates’ abilities vary, but nearly all have benefited from the basic skills.
"We realized when we started building inmates’ resumes and developing job skills that many of them badly needed computer training," Lewis said. "Some had almost no experience at all."
The jail’s education center has four computers, but Compton said the number of inmates varies from week to week depending on discipline issues, court appearances and visitation hours.
He had a full house Wednesday morning as four female inmates filed into the classroom — each clad in faded blue garb resembling medical scrubs with ‘Summit County Jail’ emblazoned on the back. The inmates chatted excitedly as Compton announced they would learn how to create PowerPoint presentations. Most seemed enthusiastic, although some admitted to early skepticism.
"In the beginning, I thought we’d be learning how to type, and I was like, I know how to type. But this is cool," one inmate said before calling out to one of her classmates. "Hey, thanks for dragging me here," she said.
"Heck, yeah," her classmate responded. "I told you this would be good."
Another inmate said the class helps her feel more productive each day.
"We stay busy," she said while working on slides describing her family. "I work, doing laundry, so you know, I come here in the morning, then I’ll do that. Then in the afternoon I’ll go to my high school class. I have a GED, but [administrators] want us to have a real diploma before we leave. I’m excited about it." The inmate said classes also help her stay focused on life after jail.
"I’m not going to say it’s fun being here, but stuff like this helps us think about what comes next." When asked if she would use her skills from the program, she responded, "Heck yeah," a sentiment echoed by the other three. .
Compton said typing might become a future focus in the class, but he plans to analyze inmate feedback first.
"It’s a really valuable skill, but I know that would also be really boring. I’m giving inmates evaluation cards after this session to see what they think. This is for them, so we try to make it about what they want to learn."
Lewis said the same inmate-guided curriculum development applies to Peak Readiness.
"The bottom line is we’re just trying to help these inmates better their lives. We try to listen to what they want to learn and give them resources to improve." And while gauging the number of inmates who will take the lessons to heart is difficult, Lewis says improving just one life makes the program worth the effort.
"Some people will utilize these opportunities and turn their lives around, and some will go right back to the ways that got them here. But if there’s just one person, then it’s a success," he said.
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