Jailhouse scholars

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A handful of Marshall County Jail inmates have grown tired of killing time and have begun turning pages in an effort to turn over a new leaf as they study for their General Educational Development certificate.

"We had requests from several inmates about taking their GED test while in jail," County Jail Administrator Sam Bragg explains.

Almost all of the inmates who took a GED pretest agreed to be photographed and interviewed about their decisions and to talk about why they are incarcerated.

Some were frank. Others were, so to speak, guarded.

Claudale Armstrong, 26, is in jail on crack cocaine charges. He spoke of how he was motivated to turn his life around the first time he heard his little girl utter the word "Daddy."

That's when he decided, "I can't keep doing this."

When a guard came to get Ronji Gower to talk about the GED, she was asleep, dreaming about the house where she grew up in Farmington. Her children are there. Her dream was about setting up an above-ground swimming pool. She does not remember dreaming about swimming in the pool.

Crack cocaine sales and robbery landed Jeremy Hurt, 19, of Lewisburg in jail. He may be remembered by some in these parts as a running back in high school. But after the cheers died, he found, "Football wasn't paying money. Crack was."

Hurt estimates he netted as much as $4,000 a week while dealing. Now, he says, he regrets dropping out, wants his GED and, eventually, a commercial drivers license. But that's to earn money for tuition to go to barber school.

Bragg says starting GED studies toward such goals is supported by Circuit Court Judge Robert Crigler, District Attorney Chuck Crawford and Sheriff Les Helton.

"Sheriff Helton, Chief Deputy Billy Lamb, Assistant Jail Administrator Jason Williams and I have worked on this, trying to put together a program so jail inmates may be able to get their GED while serving their court-imposed sentences, hopefully leaving jail in a better position to obtain employment and hopefully making it less likely that they will re-offend and return to jail," Bragg says.

Sarah Campbell, the self-described "GED Lady," administers several adult education programs as director of the county's Adult Learning Center. Late last month, she supervised a pretest in the sheriff's conference room. A pretest is administered to determine students' strengths and weaknesses. That way, a course of study may be tailored to each student's individual needs.

"Education does make a difference," Campbell points out.

Annual incomes for those with the GED are about $7,500 greater when compared to those without it or a high school diploma, she says. She says some employers even prefer workers with the GED certificate because it demonstrates they want to improve.

Armstrong is the inmate who first requested classes and testing toward a GED certificate.

"In the past, we've had some inmates who were ordered by the court to get their GED and that was done by furlough. They were mostly non-violent offenders," Bragg says. "To my knowledge, this is the first time GED testing has been conducted in the Marshall County Jail."

It has not been all smooth sailing.

"Six men and two women started to take the pretest," Bragg says of the three-hour exam. "One man started to talk, so he was taken back to the cell block. Seven finished the test."

All seven finished answering pretest questions within the three hours permitted for the test.

A week after the pretest, a woman with the Tennessee Jobs program conducted classes on how to fill out a job application form and how to be interviewed to maximize the possibility of being hired.

"I've got a vested interest in these people not coming back," Bragg says. "The less people we have in here, the easier it is to manage the jail, and the less money the taxpayers have to spend on jail operations."

Several of the inmates agreed to speak about why they are in jail and how they feel about studying and earning a GED certificate.

Whitney Mitchell

"I broke my back playing football for Ardmore High School," Whitney Mitchell says. "I went to Vanderbilt (University Medical Center) and had to quit school but went to Athens Bible School."

He says his family owns a hunting preserve near Ardmore, where customers pay for a guided hunt.

"I shoot clay pigeons," says Mitchell, whose trial is scheduled for June.

Mitchell was arrested at the EconoLodge in Cornersville, where, he says, there "was a wild party and Marshall County came in and put the hurt on us."

He was out on bond, but it was "revoked" at the request of his bondsman, the inmate says.

"I ain't no crook," he insists. "I'm innocent. Girls are my weakness. People party; I go."

From time to time he can be seen rubbing his right arm with his left hand. "I'm trying to get into rehab," he says. "That's what I'm trying to do."

Mitchell finished 11th grade. "I didn't get to finish school," he says. "Everybody needs it."

As for studying to get the GED certificate, Mitchell replies, "I don't know. I hope everything goes well in court. I'm too old for this."

Mitchell is 24.

Charles Shelton

Charles Shelton says he pleaded guilty to an auto burglary charge and was sentenced to two years at 30 percent. That term could last eight months, but while he was on bond, the 20-year-old Pulaski man was charged with possession of marijuana.

He says he's taken nerve pills.

Shelton says he wants to "further my education to get a better job."

"I want to go to art school," he adds. "I want to be an artist."

Specifically, he's interested in being a tattoo artist or an airbrush artist. He's also interested in drawing cartoons.

Derrick Hankins

Derrick Hankins pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and criminal responsibility.

The Columbia, Mo., man was the getaway driver when a clinic in Chapel Hill was robbed of several thousand dollars on Dec. 20, 2006.

"I drove because I had a license," says Hankins, 20.

Hankins says he was in the Army but was "kicked out." He came here from Arizona.

He's taken GED tests elsewhere, passing every part except the written language part.

"I don't know why I'm taking the test again," he shrugs. "Maybe it's knowing that when I get out I wasn't just doing nothing in jail, that I did something positive in jail."

Claudale Armstrong

Claudale Armstrong says that in addition to pleading guilty to possession of an illegal drug, he also was charges with possession of a 9 mm handgun. That was a crime because he'd been convicted previously of aggravated robbery.

"I did five calendars, 17 days and 36 minutes in the state pen for robbery," he says. "I lived for myself. I didn't give a (darn) about anybody but myself."

And now?

"I'm just tired," Armstrong says. "When the (17th Judicial District Drug and Violence) task force rides, you wonder, 'Are they coming after me? There comes a point when you want more. I want my GED."

He displays letters from the Tennessee Technology School at Shelbyville. A school official responded to Armstrong's requests, saying he will be accepted as a student upon his release. But his acceptance depends on various things, including whether he earns his GED certificate. Armstrong also applied for a Pell Grant.

"They actually accepted him," Bragg says. "It's conditional, but he'll qualify so he can go to school free."

Armstrong was released from a state penitentiary in October 2005. He was there for robbing a Cash Express.

"I was young and dumb," he says. "I've been doing time since I was 11 years old. I'm through."

Jeremy Hurt

After serving his time, Jeremy Hurt, 19, wants to move to Murfreesboro where, as he sees it, there's an opportunity to start a new life.

He's serving an 18-year term at 30 percent, meaning that after serving a third of his time he could face a parole board that has the authority to place him on probation.

Hurt pleaded guilty to a drug sale and robbery last year, he says. He doesn't know the robbery victim's name.

Hurt says he's the youngest inmate in the county jail here.

"I have a lot of regrets - for dropping out of school; for not doing my homework; not going to football practice.... I could be somewhere practicing football, but instead I'm in here talking to you."

Ronji Gower

Ronji Gower, 29, says she pleaded guilty on Nov. 6, 2006, to forgery. She had graduated from the 10th grade at Marshall County High School, but quit that summer because she had a 1-year-old son and could not afford a babysitter. Her parents and grandparents were either working or deceased, and the boy's father was "everywhere" and "not an option."

Gower was one of three MCHS coeds who got pregnant in the 1993-94 school year. Her son is now 13. She hadn't signed up for the health class with family life training.

Her life took a turn for the worse, she says, because "I was on drugs."

"My marriage fell apart and (her solution was drugs) - anything to stop the pain."

Gower says she signed-up for the GED courses "for work purposes, and because the judge said I had to" earn a GED certificate.

Pretest questions "seemed easy," she says, and she believes she answered many of them correctly.

"It's a blessing that they're doing it in here," she adds. "All you have in here is time. You don't have any excuse" not to take the course.

After she serves her time, Gower says, she'd like to go to school to become a phlebotomist. She has about eight months remaining to serve.

Fasonia Radley

Fasonia Radley says she was excited when they passed the paper around to sign up for the GED course. "Now, I will have something to do with my time: study," the 21-year-old Chapel Hill-area woman says.

Radley says she wants to learn more about mathematics because "I didn't learn enough about that in school. You need to know math to get a good job. You need to be able to count money."

Radley says she worked as a cashier at a couple of fast food restaurants before being arrested. She was in ninth grade when she dropped out of Page High School.

Originally from College Grove, Radley was one of four people who robbed a pizza delivery man in Lewisburg.

"I didn't like school," she says. "I was always fighting. I had a bad attitude. I was a wild teenager and didn't care. I had a boyfriend and, instead of school, I was worried about him. If I could turn back the hands of time, I would be in school.

"I like English. I can go through a book in a day. I'm a fast reader. I like fiction, and I like true stories."

If she had not gotten in trouble, Radley says she would like to be a social worker. She enjoys working with children.

"I wouldn't mind being a foster parent," she says.

After a moment, she feels compelled to add that because of her felony conviction that is no longer an option.