New inmate education program hopes to end generational incarceration

FLINT, MI — The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office is partnering with Mt. Morris Consolidated Schools on an inmate education program to break the cycle of generational incarceration that’s negatively affecting families and communities.

The IGNITE (Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education) program, announced in September, expanded the jail’s education program beyond just the ability to earn a GED.

Inmates can now take classes for their GED, finish their high school diploma, enroll in credit-bearing college courses, earn a certification in food and beverage safety, and obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson said that IGNITE is the first program of its kind in Michigan. He said the rest of the expansion thus far is for career awareness, using multiple platforms to show inmates career options they didn’t know existed otherwise.

“From all that I’ve known being in this field for a long time, every facility has a floor, a pod that teaches GED and diplomas. But, for an entire model to be education over incarceration, I don’t know of another that’s done that,’’ Swanson said.

“That’s why we want to show that it’s an alternative where we are care, custody and control of inmates, but at the same time, we’re not going to not take advantage of the opportunity to change their mindset, whether they go to prison for the rest of their life or they’re only doing six months in jail.”

There are many reasons inmates may not have received a full education including family struggles, addiction and lack of resources, Swanson said.

“By the time we get them, they’ve made bad decisions, so let’s train them never to come back again,” he said.

In one of his videos touting the program, Swanson said he wants to get inmates reenergized, ignited through education, so they come back to the facility with testimonies, not a new case.

The sheriff’s department held a Dec. 23 graduation for Leon Mize, 50, the first inmate to graduate IGNITE. He received the ServSafe certification and IN2WORK certificate through a partnership with food service vendor Aramark while incarcerated.

Related: Flint man becomes first Michigan inmate to get ServSafe certified in jail

Currently, around 200 students are enrolled in the IGNITE program, of which 30 are age 19 or under.

Swanson said the concept for the program is still in the “perfection” stage.

“What we have been asked by a number of national organizations is to design a teaching component on how we did it,” he said.

The sheriff’s department is working on a “how-to” guide to educate inmates in any facility, Swanson said. He said Michigan’s budget for incarceration is more than $2 billion and this cost is placed on taxpayers.

“If we can break generational incarceration, then everybody wins when it comes to inmates being housed,” he said.

Mickie Kujat, Superintendent of Mt. Morris Consolidated Schools said the school district has been working with the jail since 2004.

“Mt. Morris has always had the heart to help people who might need a little extra help or help done in an alternative way,” Kujat said about the expansion of the education program.

The school district plans to add staffing as needed as the sheriff’s department continues to expand the program.

Al Peter, principal at the Mt. Morris Education and Community Center, which includes the IGNITE Academy and GED program, said the education program starts with inmates completing a basic evaluation of their education and reading level.

If inmates are determined to be at or below a ninth-grade reading level, teachers will focus on basic curriculum, he said.

“Even if they are credentialed, even if they have a high school diploma from a few years back and they’re still struggling with reading comprehension, we’ll approach that to hopefully make their life a little bit better moving forward,’’ Peter said.

“We’ll help anybody.’’

If inmates test above ninth grade, the district tracks where they were enrolled last and works to either help inmates get a diploma or GED.

Two teachers are at the jail five days a week. Two additional special education teachers come in two days a week, with a third helping with overflow and data tracking.

Officials partnered with Aramark to provide inmates the opportunity to receive certifications through the food vendor’s IN2WORK program.

A job navigator also helps inmates build resumes and hones their interview skills two days a week so they can continue their education outside of jail. The navigator can also facilitate virtual job fairs and help inmates interested in a postsecondary education after their release with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Peter said the program is in its infancy.

“I can’t wait to see what it looks like a couple months from now, just to see results and those students coming full circle.’’

COVID-19 has disrupted much of the programming usually provided, Peter said. However, students that are released from jail can be split into pods to continue their education after their release. IGNITE works to provide transportation and other resources if needed.

The Mt. Morris Education and Community Center is available for inmates when they get out of jail.

On behalf of Genesee County Community Action Resource Department, Production Manager Garey West offered Mize a job working with the department’s senior nutrition services program.

“This is like a Christmas present for me,” Mize said at his graduation.

Mize, who was in jail for a 2019 manslaughter with a motor vehicle case, served nearly two years. The crime has a maximum sentence of five years.

“Good do come out of bad, you know? I’m just thankful and grateful I was given this opportunity. It was a long journey, but I stuck through it,” Mize said. “I never would have thought that I’d be the one standing up here before all of y’all and the last man standing.”

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