Though a cooperative effort from entities here in Switzerland County and the area, a program that helps people who are incarcerated get their high school equivalency diplomas.
Switzerland County Probation Officer Jeff Theetge says that the county is working in conjunction with River Valley Resources to provide the program.
“We have been working with River Valley Resources at the TEC Center, and they helped us get this started,: Theetge said. “What we were doing —before we got our program set up in our jail — was that the sheriff and the jail commander were actually transporting them to the TEC Center at least once a week to attend their program there. Because transportation at times would be an issue, and sometimes we were worried about public safety and the possibility of drugs being trafficked back into the jail, we decided to start up our own program.”
Theetge said that Natalie Williams of the Probation Office contacted the Switzerland County School Corporation, where Matt Levell and John Sieglitz made arrangements to donate six computers to the program that the school was no longer using. From there, Kevin Hayes, the technology person at the detention center, then took over, setting up the computers with the property software for the classes.
“We probably spent about $1,000 on it to get it all set up, which was covered by some Community Foundation grant money,” Theetge said. “We now have two computers set up in the jail right now for our inmates to work on it. I think at one time, there were at least six to eight people working on their diplomas, in shifts.”
The program began to take shape as an in-house plan about six to seven months ago, but Theetge said that education has been a focus of the Indiana Department of Corrections on a state level.
“The Indiana Department of Correction, the prison system, has kind of gone to a new model,” he said. “Basically they are pushing education first, before anything else. We actually decided to keep pushing education because that was one thing that we didn’t have to have numbers for to keep sustaining our drug treatment program we had to have numbers. It’s difficult, because our population changes quite frequently, and not everybody we have in there is dealing with drug issues. We tired to figure out a program that we could sustain, that wouldn’t cost a whole lot of money and we could get a lot of benefit out of it.”
Theetge said that another factor was that Indiana has now changed their criminal law code so that level six felons no longer go to prison, but instead are incarcerated at the local level.
“We’re just trying to give them some tools to work to be productive members of society,” Theetge said. “We just figured that education would be a good start, and then we’re just trying to get other things to fall into place.”
This new program is an element of the drug program, but Theetge says that it runs in combination with other programs and services.
“We’re kind of treating this as a whole,” he said. “Some of our individuals are attending our drug program that’s sponsored by the Mental Health Center. It’s two-fold. We’re trying to hit it from all different angles, trying to remove all barriers for them upon their release; then can transition them to out-patient services and the Mental Health Center. Also, if they are able to do what they can in there, they can also transition to River Valley Resources. If they are not able to earn their high school equivalency diploma while they are incarcerated, they can finish and earn it on the outside.”
Theetge said that his office has also worked to provide incentives for people to finish and earn their equivalency diploma once they are out of jail, noting that at least two people have already completed the program after leaving incarceration.
“A lot of times if I’m dealing with them on the outside, if they still have to come and see me, I’m still stressing education,” Theetge said. “We will track their education as best as we can. We’re always pushing it. I’ve even offered to pay for their high school equivalency testing, through probation fees or grant money. We’ll find a way to help them. We don’t want that as a barrier. We don’t want to get them to the point where they can’t pay for the test, so we’ve ever dangled that carrot out there for a couple of the guys as well —if they get to where they are ready to take the test, we’ll pay for it.”
Theetge says that because the county is so small, and the number of inmates from other counties that are being housed here is shrinking, the numbers of the program will always be small, but that doesn’t lessen the impact that achieving a high school equivalency diploma can have on a person’s future.
“It’s still in it’s infancy stage, we haven’t had it for too long, maybe six or seven months, roughly,” he said. “It doesn’t really cause any issues over at the jail. We actually have it set up in the booking room. It’s easily monitored. Kevin has placed the appropriate software on there, so that’s all they can do. And the jail is willing to —if they need additional instruction — to still take them to the TEC Center to meet with a real teacher.”
Theetge said that the jail program is a self-guided program, where inmates work at their own pace. There are scheduled times during the day that an inmate can go and work on the program.
“They can’t just work on it non stop,” Theetge said. “Of if they have issues with other inmates, they can’t be next to each other, so the Jail Commander schedules times for them, and they go work on it.”
The program does not get direct state funding for the program, but noted if there was some state program that they would need to seek funding from, it would be an uphill climb to receive that funding, because the jail houses so few inmates at any given time.
“We’re not housing any out of county offenders now, we’re just housing our own,” Theetge said. “So our population is roughly in mid 20s to 30s at any give time, and many of those repeat offenders have already earned their GED through a different program.”
Theetge also said that many of his repeat offenders that come through the county’s probation department don’t have their GED — unless they’ve had an ironic twist in the past.
“May of my repeat offenders don’t have a high school equivalency, unless they’ve been to prison,” he said. “Prison is one of those, that’s one of the first things they push now, is to get their education. Achieving their high school equivalency can knock time off their sentence, so there’s a real incentive to get their GED while they are in prison.”
The motivation to further their education is also stressed at numerous levels, as Theetge said that working towards their high school equivalency can be built into sentencing, plea agreements, conditions of probation, if it is deemed to be appropriate.
“If someone is working as a contractor and has owned their own business for 20 years, for example, then it’s not necessarily appropriate for them to go earn their GED, because they’re financially stable at this point,” he said.
With no specific state or federal funding in sight, that has left the program to be funded cooperatively here in the county.
Theetge noted that Switzerland County government gave $10,000 to the ‘Drug Free SC’ program, and the education component is an element of that; along with the help from community foundations, the school corporation, and River Valley Resources among others.
“All these entities are working together, and the community doesn’t know about that,” Theetge said. “The school donating the computers. The jail being accommodating. The sheriff taking them to the TEC Center. River Valley Resources with their instructors assessing our clients. The Community Mental Health Center. The Community Foundation. We’re all really working together here for one goal.”