The Coffee County Jail offers many programs to reduce recidivism and to give inmates a second chance. Now over two years old, the adult education program in the jail is thriving. The program readies inmates to take the HiSeT test, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Scott Riddle, who is the only adult education teacher in Coffee County, runs the program in the jail.
“The literacy council has been pushing it for years,” Riddle said. “I was told at one time that the average education of the jail was like 9th grade.”
“The Coffee County Jail has been very supportive of the program. Once we got the logistics cleared up, it was boom, hard and going,” Riddle continued.
In 2.5 years, Riddle awarded 75 diplomas. Fifteen of them have been in the past year.
The only limiting factor is time; inmates often leave the jail by bonding out, being transferred or being released before they can finish the course. Additionally, jail programs have greatly expanded this past year, which means there isn’t enough time for inmates to do everything.
“Whereas we used to have four classes a week, we have two right now,” Riddle said. He added adult education, also known as the HiSeT program, is still one of the higher priority programs.
Riddle has seen about 40 people go through the program so far this year, though a majority did not finish in time. If they do not pass under Riddle, he estimated 90 percent of inmates won’t pursue the degree once they get out jail.
Despite this, Coffee County leads the district (district six) in the number of graduates.
“It’s a very successful program, I’ve got people hitting on the class asking, but I can only do eight at a time and it takes about 1.5-2 months to do the class,” Riddle said.
“There’s a growing need for it,” Riddle added.
Sheriff Department Lieutenant Rick Gentry, who oversees the program daily, believes in what Riddle is trying to accomplish.
“I think it’s going great,” Gentry said. “Talking to Scott, he’s told me we have one of the higher graduation rates.
“I know from my time when I was with my state parole and probably – acquiring a GED was important in cutting down recidivism,” he said. “Most of them that made it, got their GED, got a job and stopped hanging out with the wrong people and succeeded.
“It’s giving them the opportunity,” he concluded.
For Riddle, it’s more than a piece of paper – it’s something that can’t be taken away from them and something that provides opportunities. He explained a HiSeT carries weight – finishing his class doesn’t get them a certificate of participation, it gives them a chance at a better future.
“For me, it’s all about opportunities,” Riddle said. “There is a reason people want people with diplomas to work with them. A diploma gives somebody so many more opportunities.
“You can still be a millionaire without a diploma, many people have done it, but you can still do all of this other stuff with a diploma. With a diploma, you’re just increasing your chances of finding a job or increasing opportunities of what you can do,” he continued.
“I hate seeing people getting held back because of a simple piece of paper,” Riddle said.
When it comes to passing or failing, HiSeT is more lenient than the GED – once passed, a section I passed for life and the test taker only has to redo the failed sections. According to Riddle, math is the most failed section, followed by writing, reading, science and social studies.
“I’m a very data-driven teacher,” Riddle explained on how he teaches. “After they test, I see the opportunity of where they need to work on. Most of them need to work on math, writing and the essay and then I follow up.”
Education and recidivism
Though many past studies suggested a positive correlation between earning a high school degree and lowering recidivism, the Federal Council of Economic Advisers is unsure of the validity of those claims. Recidivism is the tendency of an inmate to become a repeat offender and go back to jail once released.
“Early studies from the 1990s often showed positive results regarding the impact of education programming on recidivism, but these findings are subject to methodological concerns, in addition to being nearly outdated,” according to study titled “Returns on Investments in Recidivism-reducing Programs,” published in May 2018 by the White House.
In the nation, more than 40 percent of inmates in the nation do not have a high school diploma, according to the report. Approximately 16,000 inmates are currently enrolled in GED programs in the Federal system and the wait list for adult education programs are equally sized, the report said.