Flint, MI–Sheriff Chris Swanson announced on Wednesday new updates to the inmate education program at the Genesee County Jail, including a scholarship and a virtual reality station.

The program, I.G.N.I.T.E., was announced last month and aims to “break the chains of generational incarceration.”

Inmates are assessed for their reading and math levels, and then work towards receiving their GED if they don’t already have it, or begin taking other classes to further their education.

A new partnership with the United Auto Workers is giving the program the opportunity to expand the classes offered, with a $5,000 check.

“This I.G.N.I.T.E. program with the inmates doesn’t mean that they are bad people here, they just made bad decisions,” said United Auto Workers Region 1D Director Steve Dawes. “We have to break the cycle and there’s no better way than to educate them.”

UAW Region 1D Director Steve Dawes said he hopes one day Sheriff Chris Swanson will call him up and say he has zero inmates, because they were able to “break the cycle.” Amy Diaz | Flint Beat

Swanson said that money will go towards purchasing a virtual reality station.

“The Genesee Career Institute already has this in place, so we’re going to be bringing it to the jail and they’re gonna learn over 50 life skills,” Swanson announced. “Plumbing, electrical, they’re gonna learn how to build a wall, learn how to weld.”

He said a key part of their education is “career awareness.”

“Sometimes it just takes turnin the juices to say ‘hey, that’s where I think I want to go,’” he said.

Once inmates are released from jail, they will be matched with an employer to help them get their lives started up again. 

The jail has also formed a partnership with the NFL Alumni Detroit Chapter.

Braylon Edwards and Devon Gardner presented Swanson with a $2,000 check, the first of what will be four each year. 

Swanson said the money will go to a male and female inmate that meet a certain criteria to be used at Mott Community College or a trade school in Genesee County. 

Edwards said he was “mind blown” by the I.G.N.I.T.E. program.

“I was ecstatic to be a part of the course marketing agency, and just back them in anything they need any way they need it,” he said. “A program like I.G.N.I.T.E. is strong, powerful, impactful, it’s education.” 

So far, the program has had 300 students sign up for classes, and more than 100 students have gone up one grade level in math or reading in the past 36 days it started. 

140 inmates started research into post-secondary certifications, and in the past two weeks, four students have completed their high school credentials. 

Andre Norman, a former inmate who is now an activist pushing for criminal justice reform, shared his support of the program and appreciation to Swanson for letting him come check it out and speak with inmates.

“The fact that you allow us to come to the jail as former felons, as people who’ve been inside, as the voice…it means a lot,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a trust issue, and sometimes it’s a communication issue. And we’re here to work together.”

Norman brought with him Michael Brown Sr., the father of Michael Brown Jr. who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. 

Michael Brown Sr. showed his support for the program at the sheriff’s press conference Wednesday. Amy Diaz | Flint Beat

Brown, who is now a certified forgiveness coach helping people deal with loss, shared his support for the education program and said he’d like to help with it. 

“I’m just here on the forgiveness plan,” he said. “I want to bring those services here and help you build a different kind of program if I can.” 

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...