“Hope is the thing with feathers,” begins a famous Emily Dickinson poem:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words,
and never stops — at all.
The poem was a class favorite for the students of Margo Browning’s enrichment English class. Other popular authors, she said, included Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.
Browning teaches at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, which houses almost 450 inmates. Over the past year, staff and administrators have expanded the educational program at the jail with the hope of preparing inmates for re-entry into society and reducing rates of recidivism.
“It costs so much to keep someone in jail,” Browning said. “Surely it’s better to give inmates a tool in their toolbox so they can be productive members of society when they get out.”
The jail is particularly focused on offering General Education Development classes to inmates who never received a high school diploma.
Previously, the Adult Learning Center of Charlottesville City Schools was contracted to conduct the classes. In 2013, the jail decided to move the education program in-house.
Marjorie Shepherd, GED instructor for English and social studies, said her students are eager for the chance to further their education.
“These guys may have made bad judgments, but the ones in my class are good guys. They want to look to the future, even if they have a tough time doing it,” she said.
Shepherd teaches two GED courses per semester, one for men and one for women. Additionally, she teaches two courses geared toward helping inmates pass the ACT WorkKeys assessment, a series of tests that measure foundational abilities needed for high-skilled labor.
“If we want ex-offenders to be productive and taxpaying citizens, we have to help them get a decent job,” Shepherd said. “For some, if they had had a really good lawyer to start with, maybe they wouldn’t be there. These people deserve a chance.”
Of the 34 WorkKeys tests that have been administered at the jail thus far, 32 were passed. For many inmates, attaining a GED or WorkKeys certificate represents their first academic or professional achievement.
“I had one student who was a really tough guy, 6 feet 4 inches tall with tattoos all over,” Shepherd said. “I told him there would be a ceremony at the end of the year for those who had received the WorkKeys certificates. And he said to me, ‘If we have a ceremony, will people clap for me? I’ve never been in a place where people clapped for me.’”
Browning, who taught at the jail’s summer academy, said educational programming also could help even those who may serve the rest of their life in prison.
“For many of these men, school was just something to skip,” she said. “It’s exciting to see the life of the mind opening up for people. Because frankly, when you’re in jail, the life of the mind is one of the places where you live.”
In 2014, an overhaul of the GED test resulted in an exam that educators say is at least twice as difficult as its predecessor. The jail equipped the facility with 12 computers this past year, as the new GED test must be taken online.
Windi Turner, who directed the jail’s education program during 2013-14, said the classroom was deliberately designed to be a place where inmates “felt good about going in and learning.”
“Going into the class is like a breath of fresh air,” said Monica Williams, who is one of only two inmates who have passed both the new English and math GED tests.
Students and instructors both said educational programming builds confidence and self-esteem.
“I am proud of what I have accomplished,” said Williams, who is scheduled to be released next month. “And I am proud of my classmates. It’s an amazing thing to watch people grow when they didn’t think that they could.”
“When you grow up with nothing but negativity all around you, those praises in class mean a lot,” she said.
Pregnant at 16, Williams dropped out of high school and worked two jobs to sustain her family. Now that she is on her way to passing the entire GED, when released she plans to attend Piedmont Virginia Community College. Eventually she aims to work her way to Howard University, her dream school.
“It is never too late to get your education,” Williams wants others to know. “It doesn’t matter what situation you are or were in, there are people out there who want to help you.”
The average stay at the jail is only about one year, as the facility mainly houses inmates with shorter sentences or those waiting to receive sentencing before serving their time at a prison.
In the spring, the jail became certified as a testing site for the new GED, which Turner said will help accommodate such a transient student population.
Out of nine tested, five inmates have passed the new English GED.
Although any inmate without a high school diploma is supposed to be in the program, those who skip three classes are automatically kicked out.
Those who are left really want to be there, instructors said.
In addition, instructors emphasize that their background is in education, not corrections.
“I choose not to know what inmates have done,” Shepherd said. “I’d rather think of them as my students.”
“Many of us have a scaffolding of luck and privilege,” said Browning. “And that’s a great scaffolding. But take that away and who knows what we would be capable of doing? Many of my students have grown up without that scaffolding.”
In addition, instructors said they hope their classroom offers an atmosphere that feels humanizing, even within the context of incarceration.
“My students say, ‘You treat us like people, not like prisoners,’” Shepherd said.
Classmates are respectful toward one another, teachers say, going out of their way to encourage their peers when they read their written pieces aloud.
“The tone of the class was never anything but accepting and caring,” Browning said.
However, the jail classroom is not a normal classroom. Students are permitted to use only golf pencils; paper clips and staples are banned; and guards lead inmates to and from the classroom and into their blocks.
The educational component, officers say, is part of a larger holistic package of programs growing in the jail, which include substance abuse and health and wellness classes, all centered on rehabilitation.
Turner said the design of the educational program was made possible only by the support of the entire operational and administrative team.
Turner left her post as educational director in December and a new director from the Fluvanna Correctional Facility for Women starts soon.
The bottom line, participants say, is that educational programs help open up the futures of inmates who put in the work.
Three of Williams’ works hang on the wall of the jail classroom. One, a poem she wrote in February, is called “Good Enough.”
The last stanza rings of hope:
Love you first and the rest will follow
Because you are good enough better even
Live life, smile, stay beautiful and no more sorrow
Because you are good enough better even.