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Pennington County joins nationwide effort to rethink inmate education


Education has been proven to be one of the most effective tools to lower recidivism rates among inmates. Through a new program called IGNITE, Pennington County is changing its perspective on learning behind bars.

According to reports from the US Department of Justice, three-quarters of all inmates in America are functionally illiterate. That means missing basic reading and writing skills essential to thrive in daily life.

Through the IGNITE program, resources and benefits are provided to individuals in the justice system to further their educations. Pennington County Sheriff Brian Mueller said it’s about making the most of a literal captive audience.

“We’re not doing anything to deal with a lot of their basic needs," Mueller said. "We’re not dealing with the fact some of them don’t have a basic education, some of them don’t have job skills training. A lot of them don’t have the basic life skills they need to be successful on the outside.”

Mueller said funding from the program is being redirected from open corrections officer positions.

Jessica Vanderpool is director of grants and contracts with the National Sheriffs Association. She described this effort as a culture-changer.

“We have seven other states now, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia, Ohio, Texas and now South Dakota have become pioneers in igniting the change," Vanderpool said. "This effort is not something that can be accomplished by Pennington County alone, and it can’t be accomplished by the incarcerated individual alone. It’s a partnership that requires all of you, collaboration with the community, local schools, businesses and employers to be successful.”

Western Dakota Tech and Rapid City Area Schools are partnering in the program, which has already found success in other communities. Chris Hilton is the sheriff of Sandusky County Ohio.

“When they walk out the door think about the ripple effect they’re going to have – generationally," Hilton said. "Could you imagine a ten year old whose dad has been in jail for seven months? Walks out, he goes and gets a job, and now he comes home every night, and she doesn’t have to worry about what she’s eating, she doesn’t have to worry about if the rents gonna be paid or if the water is going to be turned on. If you don’t think that happens on a daily basis in your community, I guarantee you it does.”

Rapid City Police Chief Don Hedrick said he supports the decision to utilize the program in local jails.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture