Program offers inmates hope

GED certificates goal of sheriff’s offer for education

“Our goal is to reduce recidivism and give them hope and more of an opportunity for them to improve their lives.” Charlene Sonnier, Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office education supervisor

Clifford Carter can’t stop smiling.

The 20-year-old sits in an orange jumpsuit in the Lafayette Correctional Center, but his hopes are as big as his grin.

Last month, Carter did something he said many others in his life didn’t think was possible — he earned his General Educational Development certificate.

“It feels like I can accomplish anything now,” Carter said.

Carter is among more than 25 inmates in the past 11 months who has earned a GED certificate while in jail.

The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office offers GED test preparation, basic education and literacy classes to its inmates in the jail, as well as to offender clients in jail diversion programs who take classes at its Community Corrections Campus on Poydras Street.

As of late October, 53 inmates and offender clients earned their GED certificate so far this year, a number expected to increase once the results of a recent GED testing date come in.

The objective of the educational programs is to provide offenders tools to help them change their lives upon their release, said Charlene Sonnier, Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office education supervisor.

“Our goal is to reduce recidivism and give them hope and more of an opportunity for them to improve their lives,” she said.

As of the end of September, 205 inmates and 240 offender clients were enrolled in some type of educational service offered by the Sheriff’s Office, according to data provided by Sonnier.

If inmates miss two classes or are not showing progress within three to six months, they’re booted from the program. The policy weeds out inmates who aren’t making an effort and are using the class as a distraction from their cell block rather than as a way to better themselves, Sonnier said.

The largest enrollment is in the GED test preparation courses, with between 60 to 80 students in the classes at any time, Sonnier said. the demand to enroll is high, she said.

The program receives inmate applications daily, and tests to assess inmates’ skill levels are given weekly, she said.

More than 50 inmates were on a waiting list as of late October and more applications were awaiting processing, Sonnier said.

The addition of some new teachers to the program early next year will enable more inmates to enroll in the classes, she said. She noted that some inmates need help improving their literacy skills before they can move onto other classes.

In the future, Sonnier said, the program will begin collecting educational attainment information from new inmates to reach out to those who could benefit from the services, particularly the literacy classes.

“Some of them won’t come out and say, ‘I can’t read,’ ” she said.

Between July and September, of the 166 new inmates and offender clients enrolled in adult education courses, 34 tested at or below literacy level in reading, Sonnier said.

After 30 to 40 hours of instruction, 16 upgraded to a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade reading level and four were referred to the pre-GED program, Sonnier said.

Christopher Kindred, 44, dropped out of high school at 17 and was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability, but has found success after only two months of taking literacy classes in the jail.

Sonnier said Kindred tested as a nonreader two months ago, but now reads on a fourth-grade level.

He said the decision to improve his reading skills was also one tied to his desire to change his life.

“I never graduated,” Kindred said. “Here, I’m able to comprehend things. They have good teachers and tutoring if I need help.”

Most of the men in the classes have a similar story of struggling in school, hanging with the wrong crowds and eventually dropping out of high school.

Montrel Alfred, 21, said the GED test classes gave him confidence that he could succeed. He said he plans to attend community college upon his release.

“I’m going to do better things in life and find a better job,” he said.