Flint, MI—Almost half of the population in the Genesee County Jail cannot read or write, according to Sheriff Chris Swanson.
On average, he said, inmates have up to a sixth to ninth grade education.
Nine out of ten inmates are addicted or co-addicted, meaning a family member has an addiction. Five out of ten inmates are mentally ill.
Swanson announced the launching of a new program on Sept. 8, that he said is going to break the chains of generational incarceration by launching a new education program for inmates.
It’s called I.G.N.I.T.E.
It stands for Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally through Education.
With this program, inmates will be 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.
Deputy Dewayn Allen, who runs the program at the jail, said in addition to an assessment, inmates complete an I.G.N.I.T.E. questionnaire to determine their interests.
“Basically, what are your career aspirations? What are you trying to do with your time?,” Allen explained.
In addition to basic adult education classes, the program offers inmates the opportunity to study a new language or learn skills like welding and plumbing through a virtual reality program.
The classes are held twice a day, five days a week, and are provided by partnerships with local community colleges, skill center, GISD, and the Mount Morris School District adult education program.
Once inmates complete their time and courses, Swanson said they will link them up to partners on the outside for employment opportunities.
“We can say, hey, this man did three months and got a certificate through I.G.N.I.T.E. and then they can interview him to be a plumbing apprentice, or whatever else, and now that individual is going to do work,” Swanson said.
Two Mount Morris teachers working with the inmates said getting started has been a lot of work. The jail won’t receive the Chromebooks for online classes for another month due to a high demand from COVID-19, so everything has been done with paper and pencil.
Still, Spencer Dallaire, one of the teachers, said most of the inmates are pretty motivated to learn.
“They’re all adults, they have the choice to participate,” Dallaire said. “So the students are actually interested.”
Angela Costello, another teacher, said some inmates were reluctant at first, but after getting tested and finding out their reading and math levels were lower than they should be, many of them wanted to take classes to improve.
Deputy Allen said you can feel a change in the energy in the jail since the program launched last week.
25-year-old inmate Ramon Pool said he wants to start studying welding once the assessment phase is complete.
“Being in here, you kind of feel like you’re forgotten,” Pool said. “And then for something to come about to give us a second chance or opportunity for second chances, it’s empowering.”
Mikadyn Payne, 19, is looking to get certified in landscaping and grow his business when he gets out.
“I feel like it’s a good way to utilize our time because without this, there really isn’t anything to do other than get on the phone, play cards, or whatever else,” Payne said. “So it really allows us to utilize our time, so we can be productive while we’re here. Even though it’s only an hour or two a day, it’s a good use of time.”
Allen said this program helps with idle time.
“I cannot stress this more: idle time is the worst time to have,” Allen said. “You can’t worry about your kids, your wife, your brother, your mom. It’ll drive you nuts.”
As a testament to this, Swanson said since the launch of this program, the behavior in the jail has changed.
From March to August, there were 63-74 inmate fights a month.
From Sept. 4 to Sept. 16, there has only been one.
Swanson said that’s because now inmates have purpose.
“What we’re seeing is a purpose restored, and we’re seeing people that now see the benefit of giving an alternative than mass incarceration, an alternative to generational incarceration,” Swanson said.
Swanson said there have been critics of the program who say the jail is rewarding inmates by giving them this opportunity.
“We’ve all made bad mistakes, and I caution the people that may be critical that an education program has been brought into the jail,” he said. “We have a lot of services brought into the jail because the mission is to keep people from staying in their addiction and keep them from ever coming back.”