Flint — Genesee County Jail inmates are going to school.
Thanks to the new I.G.N.I.T.E. program, which stands for Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education, the 571 inmates have the option to take online courses while behind bars so they can create a better life when they’re released.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, standing alongside a group of community leaders, Sheriff Chris
Swanson unveiled stacks of new Chromebooks that will help Genesee County inmates further their education. The I.G.N.I.T.E. program is aimed at reducing the recidivism rate, which is the percentage of released prisoners who relapse into criminal behavior and return to jail.
“We all make mistakes. Every one of us has made a mistake that could cost us dearly or has cost us dearly,” Swanson said. “Every one of us has an opportunity, and based on what we do with that opportunity, brings us to where we are today.”
Swanson said with the county jail population, the average grade completed is sixth to ninth grade. Half of them struggle to read and write, he said, nine out of 10 are addicted or co-addicted to a substance, and five out of 10 are treated for mental health issues.
“All of them deserve dignity. All of them deserve another opportunity. Whether they want it or not, they deserve the opportunity,” he said. “It’s about changing their mindset so they never come back again.”
The state of Michigan Department of Corrections budget is $2 billion, Swanson said, and this doesn’t include what people pay per county for their county jail. If fewer people are housed in jails, the cost to taxpayers reduces.
“That means that we’re going to school, and school started here in this jail this morning at 8 a.m.,” he said. This program was beta tested this past year.
There are three tiers based on their education level: beginner, intermediate or advanced. In these curriculums, inmates go to school an hour before lunch and an hour before dinner five days a week. The studies can encompass sign language, French literature, culinary arts, skilled trades taught through virtual reality, and more.
“There is not one thing that we can’t teach them,” he said.
Swanson said the cost to taxpayers is $0. The inmates already have tablets, through GTL, that allow them to stream music and games, which generates revenue. That revenue will pay for the I.G.N.I.T.E. program.
Percy Glover, a former inmate of the Genesee County Jail, first met Swanson when he was an inmate. He told the crowd how when he got out of jail, he was lost and had no resources. Glover went to Mott Community College, he’s worked with inmates and those on probation as a reentry specialist, and he now has a master’s degree.
“Without the training, without the education, without the resources, a person cannot get ahead,” he said.
Genesee Intermediate School District Superintendent Lisa Hagel, Ph.D. spoke in favor of the I.G.N.I.T.E. program. “As children grow into adults, we still hold this belief that education changes lives,” she said. “No matter what the reality or what the situation, education and the skills and knowledge that comes along with it provide the men and the women the freedom to contribute back to society, and that is what we believe this program will do.”
Chief Justice Bridget McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court commended Swanson, the previous sheriff Robert Pickell and the new program. She’s on a state task force aimed at criminal justice reform. County jail populations have tripled over the last three years “even though crime is at a 50-year low,” she said.
She told a story she heard while doing work for the task force about a police officer who pulled over a man who had been arrested eight times for driving without a license. The man said he’d been wanting to take the test, but he can’t read.
McCormack spoke of thinking “upstream” to create better solutions to help people.
University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh spoke at the event.
“We have a saying on our team — your actions speak so loudly that we cannot even hear what you’re saying,” he said. “This is action. This is what change looks like. This is what reform looks like.”
Swanson read a note from an inmate about how they’re hopeful for the I.G.N.I.T.E. program.
“No one wants to hire an uneducated criminal. They have never had options for us … We run back to what we know best, which leads us right back to jail, the revolving door. Some of us just need that extra push. Some of us just need someone to say, ‘you got this,’” he read.