Kittelson’s Corner: The Education of Inmates in Durham County, NC

Posted on April 17, 2015


He’s Baccckkk! After moving from the Left Coast to North Carolina, Ben Kittelson landed a job as a budget analyst in Guilford County, NC. He’s unboxed his three or four boxes and is now ready to report on his new view of local government. First up – Ben gives us the 4-1-1 on Durham County’s effort to educate inmates while in the county jail.

The Education of Inmates in Durham County

jail central front

By: Ben Kittelson LinkedIn and Twitter

One of the most expensive and largest services local governments provide is detention. Not the kind of detention where you stay after school, I’m talking about detention in county jails. Before I started working at Guilford County, NC I knew that local governments built and ran detention facilities, but that was the extent of my knowledge. And like many people, I didn’t differentiate between county jails and state run prisons.
snape detentionMy first six months in Guilford County has provided a crash course in county detention centers – the types of inmates they house, the resources needed to operate, and the challenges of detention officers. I learned a detention center is its own lil’ complicated city. Each center must decide what, if anything, to offer inmates during their stay.
Reducing recidivism and providing inmates with the tools to succeed after being released is a sought after goal by many counties. To the extent that a county implements recidivism programs varies greatly. An effective recidivism effort can be resource intensive but should aim to break the cycle of incarceration.
Like others that learned about jails through movies and TV shows, I assumed inmates have a ton of free time with access to a recreation yard, a library, and educational opportunities. I also assumed that local government was not doing enough to break the cycle of incarceration. I maintain some of these assumptions but my perspective has broadened as I learn about the challenges in running educational programs in a county jail.
shawshankThe first thing to know about inmates is most of them are awaiting trial. Many have not been convicted. Turnover is another key to understanding the operation of detention centers. Nationwide the average stay of an inmate is two weeks. In Guilford County, inmates averaged 16 days in jail in 2013, and in 2014, the average was 17 days. Shorter stays for inmates decrease the number of contact hours that county jails can use to provide programming. State prisons, on the other hand, have a population that is not going anywhere for years.
Despite the narrow window available to impact an inmate, counties are making an effort. Durham County, NC just extended a trial program that helps younger inmates earn their GED. The first six months had been successful and now the Sheriff’s Office is continuing the effort.
The Durham effort led me to wonder if a similar program would work in Guilford County. I contacted a spokesperson for Durham County and learned about their approach. The philosophy behind their program can be summed up as, “We’re trying to do what we can in the window of time that we have. The Sheriff believes that doing something is better than doing nothing.”
The Durham County Jail Education Program
durham county logoThe Durham County Sheriff’s Office is targeting the inmate’s greatest need – literacy. The County Board of Commissioners recently approved a partnership extension with the Durham Literacy Center that provides educational and training opportunities for inmates ages 16 to 24. The program comes on the heels of a successful six-month trial which yielded promising results.
Participants in the trial program showed progress in working toward their General Education Diploma (GED). Often the barrier for inmates getting their GED is a poor reading level, and in Durham County, more than half of the participants improved upon their reading level during the trial period.
Participants must be between 16 and 24 years old and without a high school diploma. Inmates volunteer for the program, they cannot be forced to participate. Under this framework, more than 100 Durham County inmates volunteered for the education program during the trial period.
10606484_817928451579056_7288454797128715402_nAccording to Brian Jones, the operations and development director for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, the high rate of turnover among inmates was not a major hindrance. In fact, most of the inmates participating were staying longer than the average of 16 days.
“Our experience is that those inmates with long-term stays are the ones interested in the program,” Jones said.
Self-selection is an important aspect. Participants must be fully committed in order to achieve success in a relatively short amount of time. The Durham Literacy Council, which administers the teaching, has 1.5 hours a week with each inmate. The short time frame is largely due to the set-up of the jail, which has a “pod” style floor plan, similar to the Guilford County Jail Central. The pod style lacks a large gathering space for teaching classes. Participants instead have to be taught in the pod where they are housed. In Durham County, this works out to 15 sessions a week with 3 to 5 inmates in each session.
trends-in-detention-center-funding-4-638Other barriers exist for inmates seeking to obtain a GED. In Durham County, inmates do not have access to a computer where they can take the GED in the jail. To address that Durham County is partnering with Durham Technology Community College to offer the GED test once inmates are released. The partnership reflects a commitment from the Sheriff’s Office to connect inmates with resources on the outside. This commitment was a major factor in the involvement of the Durham Literacy Council.  Partnering with local organizations helps to measure the program’s success. The hope is inmates will with connect with these local resources when they are released.
Cost? The program costs $86,000 a year and funding comes from the County’s inmate welfare fund. Jones said the commitment from the Sheriff’s Office for this program helps maintain funding.
“We’re trying to do what we can in the window of time that we have,” Jones said. “The Sheriff believes that doing something is better than doing nothing.”

Key Takeaways

For a program like Durham County’s to succeed elsewhere there are 2 things to keep in mind:

  • Provide a clear goal and path to that goal. For Durham it was helping inmates get their GED, and they connected them with a way to take the test once they had been released from jail.
  • Connect inmates with local resources. This is key for follow up and tracking purposes but also because the organizations are more invested in the community.

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