When Clackamas County resident Laurel Shockley earned her GED in 2019, the world opened up for her in more ways than one.
Shockley received the certification while serving a 10-month sentence at Clackamas County Jail for second-degree escape and first-degree theft after spending the better part of the decade in and out of jail for a string of felony offenses that began in 2012. She said the GED program, which the jail offers in partnership with Clackamas Community College, has provided her with a "chance at a better life."
"Having the option to do the program in the jail has given me so many more options," Shockley said. "Now that I'm out and doing better — you know, I've been clean for a few years now, and I'm applying to an apprenticeship... Any apprenticeship that I would want to do, you have to have your GED. So it's been so beneficial for me to have gotten that done."
Shockley was one of 22 individuals incarcerated at Clackamas County Jail to receive their GEDs through the program in 2019, according to Clackamas County Sheriff's Captain Lee Eby. He added that 22 GEDs were awarded in 2017, 20 in 2018, and 15 in 2020 after the program was cut short due to COVID-19.
On Thursday, Aug. 19, county commissioners unanimously approved nearly $30,000 in additional funding to continue the program for the upcoming 2021-22 school year, after the program was unable to occur in 2020-21 for the first time since it began in 1999.
Eby said the money is put toward "instructor time, teaching assistant time, it also pays for the GED testing, and for that contract with the college to get instructors in here to work with the offenders who are in custody."
He added that the program's participants are selected through an application process where the jail determines the highest level of education the individual has completed to that point. When spots fill up, they place individuals on a waiting list. Courses are offered at no additional cost to those incarcerated.
Shockley said her courses met four days a week, two hours a day, with one or two teachers from CCC providing in-person instruction to 15-20 students at a time.
"It's kind of a lot to juggle for the teachers; I think that they did such a good job," Shockley said. "And they would work with you one-on-one on whatever you needed extra help with, you know, be it math, social studies, science, whatever."
One of those teachers is Brian Kidwell, a CCC instructor who has been educating incarcerated individuals including Shockley for roughly four years.
"Each student on their first day takes a placement test so we know where their starting point is, and the class is about half direct instruction to the whole class where we'll go over math, social studies, etc., and then the other part is students studying on their own, working at their own pace," Kidwell said.
He added that the structure of his classes inside the jail are nearly identical to his classes held at CCC's campus — yet his incarcerated students are often more responsive and respectful.
"There's some technology we don't have access to at the jail, but my class looks pretty much the same. I'd say the noticeable difference is that students at the jail tend to be very, very appreciative and respectful," Kidwell said. "There's almost no like monkey business because they're just, they're so appreciative that we're taking our time to be there and they're grateful to be able to be in the class," which Kidwell added is "fairly competitive" to get into.
"I'd even say students at the jail tend to have probably a higher starting place as far as being ready to pass the test than the average student who just comes through the doors at Clackamas Community College," Kidwell continued.
Shockley said that having mentors within the jail that treated her and other incarcerated individuals "like real people" was extremely beneficial for her.
"Having the teachers there who obviously cared about the students, these inmates, these people, and treated them, like real people, that was so, so nice for me because you don't get that in jail from anybody else, from the deputies, from anybody," Shockley said. "The way that they, you know, cared about everybody made a huge difference for me, personally."
In 2019, the National Center for Education Statistics found that Americans with a high school diploma or GED equivalent earned an average of $9,030 more annually than those with some high school education, and $12,625 more annually than those with none at all.
Several studies have also revealed that earning a GED significantly reduces rates of recidivism. In addition to lowering chances for participants reoffending after being released from a prior conviction, Kidwell said part of the goal of the GED course is to encourage students to pursue further education through CCC.
"There's lots of people that go on to the college, or go on to get good-paying union jobs that require that GED, and, you know, once they get a successful job, not that that cures everything, but it may make them a lot more likely to not reoffend," Kidwell said, adding that many of the individuals are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes committed out of financial distress, and having a steady income significantly reduces the incentive to commit a number of crimes.
"It also just shows them they can set a goal and complete it, and they can even, you know, work within a system because a lot of them tend to be kind of distrusting of authority, and it shows them that if they put their mind to it, they can succeed by, you know, playing by the rules," Kidwell added.
"It's generational too, like there's a lot of parents who earn their GED in there and are so proud to let their elementary school aged children know, and then they can back up the importance of education when they're talking about it to their children because if they can say, 'even though I was, you know, 40, or 35, I kept working for it,'" Kidwell continued.
Kidwell, Shockley and Eby all mentioned that the program serves as an example of how correctional facilities can serve as rehabilitative and restorative spaces for incarcerated individuals, rather than locking them away for a period of time and then releasing them back into the world, often into the same circumstances that led them toward crime in the first place.
"You're not just wasting away in there, doing absolutely nothing," Shockley said, adding that offering education to incarcerated individuals is "vitally important and invaluable."
"That is what I feel passionate about," she continued. "Reduce recidivism and give these people a chance at a better life. They deserve it as much as our children do, and society will benefit from it too."
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