Prison Inmates Celebrate Graduation, New Beginnings
By Hayley Bruce & Mark Carlson, Reporters
JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa — More than 60 Eastern Iowa prison inmates are now high school graduates after they completed their GEDs through Kirkwood Community College.
Ethan Smith always wanted to get his GED, but he kept making excuses for himself. But after he was commited to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center last month, he wasn’t given a choice. He had to get his high school diploma. Now, GED in hand, Smith hopes he can morph his love of fishing into his future by persuing studies in marine biology and hydrology to learn how to preserve the country’s waters. “The discouragement was on the outside (of the center) because I tried a couple different times and, I mean, I’m an alcoholic so I would fall back on that stuff,” Smith said. “And I’ve always had a job working construction so I figured it really wasn’t all that important.”
Smith, 41, is serving a five year sentence operating while intoxicated for a third or subsequent time at the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville. But with his degree, he said he hopes to focus his energy on more school, and having a positive effect on the community. “I was getting to the age where I don’t want to walk on a two by four wall all my life, so my talents were being wasted,” Smith said. “So I really wanted to get into school and focus on something that I could feel a little better about at the end of the day.”
Smith was one of 18 inmates to receive a GED certificate in a ceremony Tuesday; the group represented 68 inmates who earned GEDs in the last year with the Iowa Medical Classification Center’s adult education program through Kirkwood Community College.
The program, which is budgeted at about $200,000 a year, works to educate inmates in the system that test below a 6th grade reading level or those whom have not earned a GED or diploma. The program is state mandated and requires every offender to take a test when they enter the system. Inmates then either take a literacy class, or complete GED classes as part of their treatment.
And officials said the program helps to prevent inmates from re-offending and entering the system again. “Iowa does have one of the best recidivism rates in the country, and the credit goes to the commitment to the educational programs in the correctional institutions,” said Greg Ort, deputy warden at the Iowa Medical Classification Center.
Others said graduation day, in and of itself, motivates the whole facility. “We do this for a lot of the students who aren’t quite finished (with their GED) as much as those that have finished because it motivates them,” said Brenda Hampton, education director at the Iowa Medical Classification Center. “It motivates the entire institution for a couple of days afterwards so it’s a very bid day in terms of that. We always see higher numbers of completions as graduation nears because they always want to be a part of it.”
But for inmates like Smith, a GED means a second-chance to open doors that might have otherwise been closed. “It’s kind of pulling out a nail in the coffin, it’s going to allow me to search out those dreams that were really far fetched,” Smith said, smiling as he admired his GED certificate. ”Now it can be a reality so I’m really excited to get out and pursue those dreams.”
Among the graduates was Michael Swanson. Swanson has been an inmate at the prison since last July when he was sentenced to serve two life terms for the slayings. Swanson, 19, shot Sheila Myers, 61, at the Kum & Go store in Humboldt where she worked in November 2010. On the same day he shot and killed Vicky Bowman-Hall, 47, in Algona.
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