A high school diploma, and with it a goal and a brighter future, are now open to inmates of the Harvey County Detention Center. At the end of June, they celebrated the first graduate from the High School Diploma Program.
The graduate studied diligently, striving to earn that priceless piece of paper. He achieved it in six months, before leaving the Harvey County Detention Center to serve a sentence.
Jason Reynolds is the Director of the Harvey County Sheriff's Office Support Services and the Chaplain Response Team. He said, "We are really proud of him...We try to help inmates understand that when they apply themselves, good things happen."
Support Services held a small graduation ceremony celebrating the graduate's achievement. Former Heart to Heart director Marlene Beeson, who supervises the diploma program, and United Way Director Tina Payne attended. This gave an opportunity for words of encouragement to the graduate, as well as an opportunity for him to share about the experience with others.
"What's important...is when your whole life has been built around getting your gratification in short-term things, like addictions, to change the pattern of the way you think,” said Reynolds. “We want them to have a new mindset when they get out of jail. We want the people in the program to improve their lives when they get out."
The graduation has brought an influx of interest, and screening has begun for more students. There are four more inmates currently in the process of getting their diploma. Reynolds said that the Penn Foster's program is so well put together that most people will be able to achieve their diploma in one year.
Previously, the Sheriff's Office did offer a high school diploma program through USD 373, with a couple graduations. However, as the district looked at funding, they weren't able to continue the detention center program.
Reynolds began to look at GED programs, hoping for something simple that could be implemented immediately. This turned out to be complicated with the restructuring of GED programs.
Then he discovered distance-based online classes through Penn Foster High School. The school was excited to add a detention center in Kansas, as most law enforcement centers offer a GED program. The program began last August.
In his research, Reynolds found that statistics show that a high school diploma gives a 40% advantage over those without or even those with a GED. Also, earning the diploma while incarcerated shows potential employers that a person can commit to their goals.
The program has learned a couple lessons along the way. Reynolds realized how transient the detention center's population is—three inmates who started the program last fall left before completion.
To address this, they are working towards a community reentry group, funded through United Way. This group will follow-up with the student in an off-site classroom, which New Jerusalem Missions has agreed to supply. They are in the process of choosing someone to oversee the program.
Reynolds called this group a "stop gap,"and a way to continue to build relationships key to supporting former inmates. The first 24-36 months after incarceration are crucial to a person's success. If they do not reoffend in this period, they have a greatly improved chance of continuing a new, crime-free lifestyle, said Reynolds.
Over the last eight years, Sheriff Walton and others have introduced reentry programs at the detention center. Reynolds said they want to share core values with inmates that will give them traction when they leave.
These programs include 12-step programs from Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Groups from Grace Community Church, First Mennonite and St. Mary's come once per week to the jail to provide spiritual care. Support Services also provides an accredited parenting class various times per year, as a facilitator becomes available. This class qualifies for custody-issue requirements. Beeson also teaches an anger management class. Reynolds said they are planning to work with Circles of Hope for a budgeting/financial health class.
Reynolds emphasized caring for the inmates as people, most of whom had various factors and choices leading to their incarceration. “We want to be there to support them,” said Reynolds. The new skills these programs teach help to reduce the number of people returning to jail and improve the health of the community.