Georgia sheriff aims to keep jail classes

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WOODBINE, Ga. (AP) — Camden County Sheriff Jim Proctor doesn't like to see repeat residents at the county jail.

One important way he believes he can keep them from coming back is to make sure they are given a chance to better themselves while behind bars. He proved that a few months back by finding a way to keep the county jail's General Educational Development, or GED, program operating fully despite recent cuts in funding.

Proctor said he believes ensuring that inmates get set on a course to continue their education can break a potentially continuous cycle of crime.

"They come to us, and if we don't do something to give them a leg up, they are going to come right back," he said. "If we don't, we are doing ourselves a disservice."

Proctor began the program nearly 18 years ago when he was the county's jail administrator. He left the Sheriff's Office for a few years and worked as a police officer in Brunswick. Since returning as sheriff at the beginning of 2013, he has worked to make the program a priority for the inmates. Current Jail Administrator Rob Mastroianni is instrumental in making that happen, Proctor said.

Mastroianni works with Joe Bryant from Coastal Pines Technical College, who visits the jail every weekday morning to teach the classes. Bryant spends 1 1/2 hours each with the male population and the female population teaching the GED courses.

Three months ago, state funding to the technical college that helped pay Bryant's salary was cut in half.

"It cut his available hours from 19 to seven," Mastroianni said.

Not wanting to see the program suffer, Proctor worked with Mastroianni to make up the difference in funding by taking profits from the jail's commissary.

That money comes from the inmates themselves when they buy snacks and personal hygiene items from the small jail store.

Inmate family members normally deposit that spending money into individual inmate accounts.

State law dictates that profits from the commissary can only go to programs that improve the quality of life for inmates, Mastroianni said.

Given that studies show a recidivism rate of 15 percent or less for inmates who work to further their education, Proctor said he can't think of a better place to put the money.

Saving the program was a relief to Bryant, a retired school teacher who was recommended for the job by a friend at his church three years ago.

He said he finds working with the inmates very rewarding.

"I'm a little older now," he said. "I see life a little better, and I have experiences to share with (the students) and help them realize it's important they get their GED."

Bryant said he usually has between 10 and 15 students enrolled in the program.

When they come to him, he administers what he calls a locator test to determine their competency. Once determined, he then works on getting them to test at a proficiency of 12.9, meaning they show a level of competency indicative of 12 years and nine months of education.

"The fun part is testing them 30 days later and seeing they have improved two to three grade levels," he said.

Typically, a student in such a program would have to pay for his or her final test.

That can be a financial burden for an inmate with no way to earn an income, but Proctor also devised a work-around for that. Final tests for GED diplomas that can't be paid for by the students are also paid out of the commissary profits.

"He just tells me, 'Don't worry about it,'" Bryant said of Proctor who he describes as a "pro-education sheriff."

Bryant said he typically graduates about three students out of the program every year, but that low number shouldn't fool anyone. Those are only the inmates he is able to track through system. Because many inmates are only in the jail temporarily, awaiting trial or serving a sentence of less than a year, many are released, or moved to another facility, before completing the program.

Bryant makes students promise him they will continue the program if they are released or even if they are sent to prison.

Those who are released are put in contact with the county's re-entry program, run by volunteer Robert Cummings in a building adjacent to the jail.

Those who don't take advantage of the re-entry program can also take classes independently at Coastal Pines. Bryant works to make sure their credits transfer so they can continue where they left off.

Bryant said he gets a thrill when he sees a former student somewhere in the county after they have been released and completed the program.

"They tell me they received a lot of enlightenment going through the course," he said. "I feel blessed to be doing it."


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union,

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