Education can help to keep inmates from committing new crimes when they’re released. But funding those academic programs can be a barrier for correctional facilities. Now the Pennington County Jail has brought back its GED program after a long hiatus.
Captain Brooke Haga has been working at the Pennington County Jail for more than 20 years. When she first started, the jail partnered with the local Career Learning Center on a GED program for inmates. When the center lost grant funding, Haga says the GED program went with it.
“Since that time, which has been over a decade, we’ve been looking for ways to bring it back into our facility.”
Haga eventually found a model that could work. It’s similar to the program in the county’s Juvenile Services Center.
“It’s basically a self-paced, self-taught program," she explains. "So it did not take an educator to sit in class with them, and really the facilitator just provides materials, sets the pace, and determines when people are ready to actually test.”
After approval from the state and the testing agency, the Pennington County Jail installed computers with testing software and by June, the program was back. In September, a male federal inmate became the first to earn a GED in the jail’s new program.
Haga explains students have scheduled class time during the week to work on material. They study four subject areas, one at a time - math, science, social studies and language arts - with help from correctional staff and occasional volunteer teachers.
“And they decide where they wanna start" says Haga. "We try to start with an area they feel confident in, so that we can build that confidence as they work through the harder subjects for them personally.”
When they’re ready, they take the final computerized tests. The students are on the hook for the costs of those tests - about $22 each. Haga says there are 25 men and 25 women currently enrolled in the program. The men’s and women’s classes meet on alternating days of the week. Inmates sign up at a kiosk in their housing unit, and those on the waitlist start with pretests to gauge their current skill level.
Haga admits some sign up hoping to socialize with other inmates. But the pretest usually shows who is serious about the program.
“If you’re not focused on doing it, it’s taking you a week to get it back to me to grade, then it’s not a priority for you," she says. "If you’ve been given your unit material and you’ve been working on it for over a month, then it’s pretty clear that it’s not a priority for you.”
But for most, the GED program is a chance to make the best out of their time in jail. That’s true for Kamry Prue, a 23-year-old from Rapid City who’s working her way through the math unit. She’s serving time on drug charges, and says she’s working on her GED so she can continue her education when her sentence is up.
“So that I can do something with myself," she explains. "Change.”
She says language arts comes easiest to her, so that’s where she started. Kamry doesn’t know yet what she wants to do once she leaves jail, but she believes getting the GED will open doors for her.
“'Cus it’s always important, no matter where you’re coming from or where you’re going or what your circumstances is. It’s always good to try and change for the better.”
Inmates finish as much of the material as they can during their time in the Pennington County Jail. Captain Haga says the program is flexible. Credits can transfer to other testing facilities.
“Or, if they’re here long enough, they’ll work through the entire subject and they’ll get their GED!” she says.
And there’s a chance for it to grow into a community effort. Haga says some local retired teachers volunteer as tutors during class time. Other volunteers like Nancy Engler don’t have a teaching background, but want to offer support to the inmates. Engler leads a Bible study with some of the same women studying in the GED program. She encourages them to get as much education as they can.
“Because I’m working on their time when they finally leave here. And so it just seems normal that if I’m encouraging them to get their education, I come here and work with them on their GED," says Engler.
And that’s a primary reason for bringing the program back to the Pennington County Jail. Captain Haga says there aren’t many programs that help inmates think about their options once they leave jail. She says it’s meaningful to see the program’s participants make something good out of a bad situation.
“I mean, it doesn’t get much lower than this," Haga says. "And so if we can take a time when they’re at their bottom and start building them back up, I think we’ve done our job.”
For Kamry Prue, that work started in the Pennington County Jail will continue. She’s since been transferred to the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre where she plans to complete her GED testing while finishing out her sentence.