Lowcountry jail offers education to detainees facing court delays
Dressed in a graduation cap and gown, Isaack Jimenez stands before a small group in a beige, cinderblock room. He glances at his wife and 18-month old daughter before recalling what he thought was the worst day of his life.
“I made a mistake and I ended up here,” says Jimenez tearfully. “But with the help of God I look at it now as the best thing that could ever happen to me.”
The 31-year-old is receiving his GED while incarcerated at the Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston. Here, he’s finding himself and opportunity.
“It’s like being in prison out there in the world because we are so lost in our addictions that we don’t see what’s in front of us.”
In front of Jimenez today is a group of nearly a dozen other incarcerated men wearing purple, polo shirts. They embrace him after the ceremony and talk about the college classes they’re taking and hope he will too.
Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano began launching a new education program at the detention center after she was sworn in last year. She believes education can keep those who’ve been incarcerated from being re-arrested once released, often for more violent crimes.
“It’s the younger ones that get me,” says Sheriff Graziano. “Right now, in our juvenile facility, we have 14 kids accused of murder.”
Statistics show nationwide, roughly two thirds of those behind bars don’t have a high school education.
Education in prisons is nothing new, but jails are typically where people are held until their cases are heard. Only now, they’re held longer, more than year in Charleston County because of backlogged courts due to the pandemic. The sheriff decided to use the extra time to offer GEDs and associate degrees.
“It opened up hope again for me, says 39-year-old Steven.
We’ve been asked to use just the first names of those detained taking college classes.
Once pre-med at the University of Florida, Steven says he’s been given a second chance. He tugs at his beard while talking about the courses he’s taking, like business and sociology, online through Trident Technical College.
"It's opened up hope again for me"Steven- detainee at the Charleston County jail
Across from Steven, in a room with windows so large it feels like a fishbowl, is 18-year-old Davieonta. His laptop is open.
“To be honest, I never really did like school,” says Davieonta. “But my grandmother always wanted me to go to college because nobody in my family ever made it to college.”
Davieonta just made the dean’s list which requires all As and Bs. Next to him is Eli. The 45-year-old is reading a book called, “Change of Die”.
“Everyone of us realizes we done took something from the community so we can’t never give that back.”
But what this group of eight students wants to give back are better versions of themselves so they can find work, parent and mentor others. All are accused of a variety of crimes, like drugs and robbery. Most are recovering from trauma and addiction.
43-year-old Joe is a big man who lost his daughter and grandchild to gun violence. Growing up, he says he slept on strangers’ floors while his mother used drugs. School just wasn’t a priority.
“Instead of me being able to get rest at night like most kids, I’m staying up until three or four o’clock in the morning praying my mother makes it through the door safe,” he says.
The Director of Education and Programs at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, Radia Baxter, wants to prove what research shows; those who take part in correctional education are 43 percent less likely to offend again. She says students at the detention center are eager to change, they just need confidence and help with how.
“You’ve given them a little nudge,” says Baxter. “I can look at things totally different than what I was before.”
“Education is important. It can change their lives.”Professor Daryl Milligan, Trident Technical College
Professor Daryl Milligan with Trident Technical College has taught the detainees three business courses and finds them more motivated than regular students. He says, at first, many were intimidated by writing term papers, but they embraced the fear and worked together, figuring out footnotes and notations.
“I hope I’ve instilled in them the importance of actually completing their degree,” says Milligan, acknowledging some could be released before their work is done.
"Education is important. It can change their lives."
This summer, the students put together a presentation for business leaders and lawmakers that included a public service announcement about gun violence. Joe shared his personal story of loss.
The idea was to raise money for programs that benefit the detainees' communities. But the event also introduced them to people who expressed interest in hiring them and shined a light on their success as students.
“I would rather spend money on investing in these young men and women than in increasing incarceration budgets,” state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said.
For now, the sheriff’s office program is funded by money made in the jail canteen and by Trident Tech which is teaching courses pro bono. But Sheriff Graziano says she’ll likely look for grants as dozens more now incarcerated wait to take classes.
Steven’s case, meantime, is close to being adjudicated. He was met with applause as he shared with community members during the presentation his newly found purpose.
“For me, this is a journey to find freedom in here so that when I leave these walls, I can truly be free.”
The hope is freedom found behind bars through education will pay off. People, not only punished for their crimes but rehabilitated, will return to their communities permanently and make them safer.