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Durango-area jail inmates can use earn GED behind bars

May 2, 2019

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) — Jail is often thought of as a place for people who are a menace to society. The phrase “con college” is often associated with it.

But for Mary Mullen, who teaches at the jail, the notion that people learn how to be better criminals while incarcerated misrepresents the real opportunities offered in La Plata County.

Mullen has met with inmates at the La Plata County Jail six hours a week for more than two years now, she said. Most of the people she meets didn’t do well in high school, didn’t get a high school diploma and often have learning disabilities that went unaddressed for years.

They’re often bored, Mullen said; they want to learn.

But inmates’ desire for knowledge isn’t aimless - nor is it criminal. People at the La Plata County Jail volunteer to meet with Mullen to learn the skills they need to pass the four tests required to get a GED, an alternative to a high school diploma.

Mullen, who leads the GED program at Durango Adult Education Center, is one of two educators who visit the jail each week to meet with inmates. Mullen specializes in math and science, and another educator teaches history and English. Inmates meet with teachers in one of two jail meeting rooms, usually in small groups without a sheriff’s deputy present, Mullen said.

“I just love teaching at the jail,” Mullen said. “I love that population.”

Durango Adult Education has taught at least 124 inmate students since it started working in the jail in February 2017, said Elizabeth Helvey, executive director of Durango Adult Education Center. Mullen has helped at least a dozen inmates complete their GED.

The Adult Education Center now averages about one graduate per month, Helvey said. Inmates took 44 GED tests in 2018 - people must pass four tests to achieve a GED.

Alexander Lang, 24, took one of those tests. He spent about three months incarcerated for violating parole; he is now housed at Hilltop House, a halfway house that allows people to serve a sentence while working in the community. He has one test left - math - before he gets his GED.

Lang didn’t like high school; he got kicked out for drug paraphernalia, he said. Like many people who had trouble with school discipline, he ended up in the custody of law enforcement. But as he sat bored in the jail for violating his parole, he began to wonder what he wants to do with his future. It was around that time that he learned about the GED program.

It took him a bit to get back into the “rhythm” of learning, but once he got the basics down, he found himself doing more challenging work.

“Toward the end, a lot more of the guards, a lot more of the superior officers said it’s a good thing you’re doing, getting your GED,” Lang said. “I needed that in my life.”

Lt. Gary Boudreau with the Sheriff’s Office said the jail pays $1,500 a month for Durango Adult Education Center’s services. But that’s a small price to pay for the joy that comes to an individual, the people around him or her and those who are charged with incarcerating them on graduation day.

There aren’t many celebrations at the jail, Boudreau said. Graduation ceremonies often bring positivity to an environment typically filled with anger, remorse or discontent. The inmates embrace the program, he said.

“Every time we do a graduation, multiple inmates come over and congratulate the person,” Boudreau said. “It’s been a very, very positive experience. They’ve really brought it to another level.”

The success of inmates who graduated the program is infectious, Mullen said. Every time someone graduates, inmates line up to give the graduate high-fives, she said. Anyone who earns a GED in the jail gains status on their cell block, Mullen said.

And when people graduate, it encourages other inmates to participate in the program, Helvey said.

“The program has a self-reinforcing effect among students,” Helvey said.

Part of that reinforcement may be the privileges given to GED students at the jail, Mullen said. Inmates are given a pencil upon being booked into the jail. Mullen said she trades new pencils for used ones that have been whittled down to a stub so students can keep doing their homework.

Another benefit to students is the irrevocable privilege inmates get from the knowledge and validation that comes with achieving a GED, Mullen said. Empowering inmates through education gives them the tools they need to further their education, find employment and contribute to society when they’re released.

Disruption of criminal cycles is the whole idea behind the GED program at the jail, Helvey said. Providing people who are incarcerated with the tools they need to get a job or go to college is a proactive approach to addressing crime that gives people the resources they need to pursue a lawful, productive and meaningful life, Helvey said.

“It’s helping people integrate into society,” Helvey said. “It’s giving people a chance to be contributing members of the community.”

And it seems to be working, Boudreau said. Not many people who graduate from the jail’s GED program come back, he said.

“One of our goals is to provide inmates with meaningful engagement, meaningful activity while they’re here,” Boudreau said. “It’s humane, and we don’t want people just wasting their time here doing time.”