When asked to predict inmate interest in a soon-to-launch initiative providing educational opportunities, Johnson County Sheriff Adam King spoke of stepping off in faith in hopes of making a difference.
“When I took office I started looking at ways to try to get these inmates doing something productive while they’re in jail,” King said. “I wanted to provide some kind of GED and vocational training for them so that when they get out they hopefully find a job, not come back to jail.”
How inmates will react — participation will be by choice, not mandatory — remains to be seen, King admitted.
“We hope there will be a good amount of interest in this,” King said. “It’s something they’ll have to want for themselves. It’s like that saying that it’s hard to rescue someone who won’t be part of their own rescue.”
It’s important to make the effort, King said.
“People, a lot of times, think of bad people in jail and some of them are, but some are good people who made bad decisions,” King said. “Ultimately, most of the people in our jail are from right here in our county. These are peoples’ sons, daughters, parents, friends. We can’t just throw them away.
“The other goal is that we see a lot of people who keep coming through the jail over and over cycling through. If we can get one person turned around and out doing something good once they get back out in the world instead of just winding up back in jail, that’s a huge benefit for them and the taxpayer. That’s a savings of $17,155 a year to keep them in jail housed and fed. And we’re hoping these classes can help turn more than one person’s life around.”
Inmates have access to some classes on drug and alcohol rehabilitation, King said, and some ministerial support Bible studies and other classes but nothing in the way of GED or vocational training.
King said he wanted to change that and initially considered traditional educational avenues.
“I realized that was going to be very costly because we would need a lot of teachers and instructors to come to the jail to do that,” King said. “The cost was just astronomical. I also found out that it was really hard to get teachers and instructors to come work in a jail setting. It’s not exactly the best work environment, as you can imagine, being locked in a jail with inmates all day.”
King instead considered other options, including online learning.
County commissioners, at King’s request, during their Tuesday meeting, approved an extension to the county’s contract with Global Tel*Link, the company that provides inmate telephone service.
“They’re able to provide extensive education and GED programs plus hundreds of rehabilitation programs for anger management, drug counseling and things like that,” King said.
By extending the contract from 2021 to 2024, Global will provide tablets, books and other educational materials, King said.
King said he’s also working with Hill College to provide vocational programs.
“We’re working out the logistics on that,” King said. “The challenge is that a lot of that training is hands-on so we’re seeing what we can do about getting some instructors out here for the hands-on aspects of those courses they can’t complete online. But there are things we have out here, food service courses, we have a kitchen. Industrial maintenance courses and others that could be done with what we have here.”
King stressed that tuition and any other costs associated with the courses will be paid not by taxpayers but by the inmates instead.
“It’s important that the public knows that this isn’t taxpayer money funding this and that I will never ask for taxpayer money for it,” King said. “Instead this is the inmates paying for it through commissary sales at the jail. The profits from those sales can only be used for the betterment of inmates through educational classes and things like that.
“During the time I’ve been sheriff we’ve built up that account to where we have enough to sustain these programs. And if it ever reaches a point where we don’t we would pull back until the funding built up again.”
Commissioner Jerry Stringer said he supported the idea in part because it comes at no cost to the taxpayer.
“I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Stringer said. “But I’m never against someone trying to improve themselves and see a legitimate purpose here. I certainly think that if a person has opportunities for productive ways to conduct themselves while incarcerated that it can make for a safer and more productive running of the jail.”
To that end, Global Senior Account Manager Cheryl Mynar told commissioners that other jails using these programs have seen significant reductions in recidivism, as well as inmate assaults on each other and jail staff.
The time inmates spend in the jail poses another challenge, King admitted. Several stay only a short time after which they bond out, get released or get transferred to another facility. Others, however, may remain in the Johnson County Jail a year or more while awaiting trial.
“Obviously the ones who because they can’t bond out, are awaiting trial or whatever and are going to be here awhile would be our highest priority,” King said. “On the other hand, if it’s someone who’s probably going to be going away on a life sentence we wouldn’t want to be spending money to sign them up for courses because there wouldn’t be much point.
“But, even if it is someone who’s going to be getting transferred to a prison I think there’s value in it to get them started on a GED or vocational program, which they can maybe continue wherever they get transferred. Even if they’re going to be released from our jail but can get started with the GED program or something maybe that will inspire them to pick that up once they’re back out in the world and try to turn their life around.”
A coordinator has to be hired — commissary profits will pay that person’s salary as well — and equipment installed but the plan is to begin offering the courses in about two months, King said.
“I’m for it,” Commissioner Kenny Howell said. “No. 1, it doesn’t cost the county a dime. No. 2, I think that while obviously not everyone out there is going to take advantage of this a lot of them will. And they might as well. They’re out there anyway so that might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get that GED or, if they’ve graduated high school already, study something else and get on the path toward gaining some knowledge and job skills for when they get out.”