Jailhouse and schoolhouse: Education that gave me direction is doing the same for my inmates

As I walk through the Genesee County Jail in Flint, Michigan, the only sound I hear is a new one: the faint tick-tick-tick of computer keyboards. It is the sound of a better way of policing the incarcerated — one that offers an alternative to the violent confrontations that have too often stressed police-community relations.

Inmates in our county jail are among the latest to enroll in a new culture called IGNITE — Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education.

Instead of staring into the void of the crushing monotony of jail time, these men and women are quietly furthering their education. Their faces are buried in Chromebooks provided through the collaboration of the Mt. Morris Education and Community Center as they work to change the trajectory of their lives.

Some are working toward their high school diplomas or GEDs or taking vocational courses in plumbing, carpentry, welding and electrical. Still others are earning a national certification in food and beverage safety. 

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While most jail facilities have a floor, or pod, where only certain inmates can take courses to earn a GED or high school diploma, this program pushes education over incarceration for everyone. Whoever wants to take a class can. Five days a week, for two hours each day, nearly the entire incarcerated population at Genesee County Jail goes to school.

Sheriff Chris Swanson (Photo: Genesee County Sheriff's Office)

I was saved by education.  

In high school, I knew I was going to become a cop. I would go to the police academy, join the force in Flint and spend my career helping my community. I had no interest in higher education and I had no idea, at the time, how extensive my work for the community would become. 

My plan took a turn when a police officer I admired told me to go to college instead. The education would put me ahead of where he was — working as a cop, late in his career trying to support a family and going to school full time in order to move up in the ranks. 

So I did. Not only did I earn an associate’s degree (I had been given a scholarship from the county police association to go to community college), I moved on to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s. Earning an education matured me (something that’s missing in many officers today), gave me patience and made me a better police officer.

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In 2019, I became the Genesee County sheriff, and I had already noticed a disturbing trend — an overwhelming number of families in the county experiencing generational incarceration. I saw fathers enter the jail, followed by their children and their children’s children.

I had written my master’s thesis on crime prevention. I learned that the No. 1 thing that reduces crime is people valuing their lives and getting educated.    

Schooling that had given me direction is now doing the same for my inmates. In September, we worked with the Mt. Morris Education and Community Center curriculum to essentially turn jail into an opportunity for lives to take a turn through more education. 

Though I had earned my master’s years before, the data still backed me up: A 2016 Rand Corp. study determined that incarcerated individuals who get an education while in prison are up to 43% less likely to return. 

After they leave Genesee County Jail, returning citizens can continue taking courses, free of charge, at a facility that we officially opened this week. All former inmates, no matter what state they are from, or when their incarceration ended, can take classes. We charge no one.   

Our goal is to make better people, not better inmates.  

Since its public launch, the program has enrolled hundreds of students who have completed more than 19,000 hours of coursework and participated in more than 700 standardized tests. Reading comprehension and math skills have improved. In addition, 60% of those who have taken the GED have passed.

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The work doesn’t stop there. Sheriff’s office staff have assisted 18 graduates in gaining full-time employment upon their release. Our community is on board. In addition to Mt. Morris Education and Community Center, ELGA Credit Union has taught financial literacy courses so that released inmates can make better decisions about money and credit.

The program has attracted the commitment of the Detroit Chapter of the National Football League Alumni and the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association, both of which have sponsored scholarships for graduates to continue their education upon release.

Inmates at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan — located about two hours from Flint — pooled their resources and donated $2,000 from their personal commissary accounts to the program.

IGNITE is just one part of my approach to improving police-community relations.

Last year, when protesters marched in Flint against police brutality and in memory of George Floyd, I decided to make it a parade, not a protest.

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Instead of facing off with protesters in riot gear, I took off my riot helmet and walked alongside them. This action inspired the hashtag #WalkWithUs and was witnessed by people around the world. I was proud to join the chorus of citizens and law enforcement officials alike, who were equally appalled by Floyd’s death and determined to seek a better way.

In a city whose most recent national headlines have focused on poisoned water, violent crime and poverty, we are building a new model of what policing can be.  

That is the commitment of my office, inside the walls of the Genesee County Jail. 

Chris Swanson is sheriff of Genesee County (Flint), Michigan.

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