Inmates celebrate GED graduation

Education: Thurston County Jail program helps get lives on track

jpawloski@theolympian.comJune 15, 2012 

Eight Thurston County Jail inmates should be commended for having the courage to step up and complete their high school education while incarcerated, officials said during a graduation ceremony at the jail Thursday morning.

The inmates’ time in jail “might not be the highlight of your life,” instructor Bonnie Rose told the graduates, “but you had the courage to show up here and do something for yourself. I would feel really proud about the accomplishment.”

The inmates who earned their GED diplomas donned caps and gowns and ate cake during the ceremony in a jail classroom. The graduates said they hope to better their lives after their release.

“I am proud of myself to say, ‘Hell yeah, I finally did it,’” said inmate Rachel Panek. Panek added that she had been trying to earn her GED certificate for seven years before taking classes at the jail. “If I can do it, anyone can. Just have a little faith in yourself and you too will graduate.”

Thurston County Chief Corrections Deputy Todd Thoma said the program, co-sponsored by South Puget Sound Community College, is a win-win. Taxpayers reap the rewards and cost savings of reduced recidivism rates for inmates who further their educations, he said. And the inmates get a diploma – an accomplishment that gives them a better chance of finding a job, continuing their education and not winding up back in jail.

Said inmate Michael Janes, “This GED will be a big help as I go in the direction of a new life.”

Thoma also offered words of encouragement to graduates during the ceremony.

“Be proud of yourself,” he said. “This is a huge accomplishment for the environment that you’re in. You are an inspiration to me and I wish you nothing but luck.”

Inmate Torry Holly said he has already been admitted to SPSCC after completing his General Educational Development tests at the jail. He said he hopes to complete a degree in culinary arts. He said the program also helped him complete a financial aid package.

“It’s worth it,” Holly said of the program, which is taught by Rose, an instructor at SPSCC. “I get to accomplish something, and I leave here better than when I came in.”

Rose said the program was established in 1996. Since then, almost 500 inmates have received their GED certificates while incarcerated, and another 250 inmates received their GED certificates after their release.

Rose, who cut a cake for the graduates after the ceremony, said teaching the program is a pleasure, because the inmates want to learn and take the classes seriously.

“I’m just so appreciative being in this role where people cooperate with each other to make good things happen,” Rose said. “It’s good for the community and it’s good for the people who benefit from it.”

Mark Kenney, an SPSCC employee who administers the program, said that inmates score as well or better than people who take the GED tests who are not incarcerated.

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza and SPSCC President Gerald Pumphrey also congratulated the graduating inmates.

“I commend you for the obstacles that you’ve overcome,” Snaza said.

Snaza said after the graduation that the program would not be possible without the support of the Thurston County Commission. The program is paid in part by a treatment sales tax, Snaza said.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445

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