Hardeman County Correctional Facility houses over 2,000 inmates, 99 percent of which will return to the community. In an effort to prevent recidivism, passionate educators help inmates earn their GED so they can succeed outside prison walls.
“None of these offenders were born criminals,” Warden Michael Donahue says. “Just because you’re an offender and you’re convicted of a crime, doesn’t mean you have to check your humanity at the door. If you come here without an education, I’m going to give you an education.”
At this Tennessee facility, teachers are not only well qualified, they’re invested in their students. Adult educator Sheri Wade uses her 32 years of experience to teach a curriculum of science, social studies and writing, but also modifies her methods, taking into account each student’s needs.
“If you come here without an education, I’m going to give you an education.”
– Michael Donahue, Warden
“What I try to do is let the class be open for them to engage with me,” she says. “I listen to what they’re interested in. I listen to what their fears are. The most important thing is teaching these inmates how to learn.”
Similarly, Jo MacMahan doesn’t see inmates when she’s teaching – she sees students. “Everybody’s got a different story of why they’re here,” she explains. “They’ve got a different story of why they didn’t get an education on the street, but the majority of my students appreciate the expectations I have that they’re going to attend class and they’re going to achieve.”
Along with a core GED curriculum, inmates are offered computer classes and lessons on career management. Their teachers take pride in changing inmates’ perspectives and opening their eyes to how important education is, especially once they return to the community.
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However, MacMahan and Wade agree that graduation is the most gratifying day of the program. Inmates are dressed in caps and gowns, and walk in a ceremony just like all graduates do. They receive a diploma issued by the state of Tennessee, an accomplishment they can use and be proud of for the rest of their lives.
When I see them graduate, I know how hard they’ve worked,” Wade says. “When I see them walk up to the stage to get their GED, I can’t tell you. It’s all heart.”
Meanwhile, MacMahan looks toward the future. “If getting that diploma makes the difference between a job and coming back in here with us again, then it’s worth it.”