GOLDSBORO – There were no tassels to turn. Loose orange tops and bottoms replaced formal robes. Instead of a grand hall, the graduates sat in grey plastic chairs along an austere cement block wall. Every movement of their hands as they looked at their documents was made in pairs, their handcuffs reminding them that they had accomplished this thing even though they were behind bars. In those score sheets and certificates, one group of Wayne County inmates saw a future beyond crime and incarceration with their new high school diplomas.
For the past year, Wayne Community College’s Transitional Programs for College and Career (TPCC) has provided the “HSE in the Community” program to inmates in Wayne County’s Sheriff Carey A. Winders Detention Center Annex in Goldsboro, preparing them to take the HiSET® battery of tests and earn a high school equivalency (HSE) diploma.
Four recently accomplished this feat and three who were still being held in the center were recognized in a simple ceremony last month.
The graduates are Lonnie Atkinson of Goldsboro, Jarvis Chase of Seven Springs, Joshua Ensley of Greenville, and Martin Herrera of Greenville, who has already been released.
Chase had been working on the test series before coming to Wayne’s detention center and was eager to finish, he said, “As soon as I was ready, I took tests. It took two months to do them all.”
“Only a few things get in the way when you are locked up,” Chase said, unlike all of the distractions he encountered in high school.
“This time, we really wanted it,” said Atkinson. “It feels great.”
Atkinson wants to study welding then go into an industrial engineering program. He intends to participate in the next graduation ceremony TPCC holds for its HSE and Adult High School graduates.
“When I get out, I want to hit the school and continue my education,” Ensley said. “I want to help people who want to strive for the same thing.” He wants to learn a trade and about finances.
“We’ve been talking about taking advantage of all of the help that is out there that we didn’t know about when we were ‘out there,’” Ensley said. “It is about keeping the same kind of mindset you had in here.”
“I very much appreciate the educational program that WCC has provided within our detention facility. I feel that the individuals who elected to participate have something to give back to their community if given a chance,” said Wayne County Sheriff Larry Pierce.
TPCC Instructor Eddie Yelverton meets with the men two days a week in the Fall and Spring semesters and once a week during the summer term, for a few hours each session, in a bare-bones room that accommodates just eight students.
“The packet program works well for people with some ability, but for some, in-person is better. That is the reason I wanted to start the ‘study hall,’” Yelverton said.
Each inmate moves through the program’s 10 modules, each contained in a separate workbook, at his own pace. In addition to the supervised study, the men can work on lessons on their own time. They take practice tests on Wednesdays to check their progress.
“They don’t have much to do down there. This gives them something to do,” Yelverton said.
Nevertheless, inmates need a reason to participate. “There has to be an endgame in the prison system. Taking the HiSET® is the end game,” Yelverton said.
Ultimately, the inmates are working toward taking the five subtests in the HiSET® assessment: Language Arts – Reading, Language Arts – Writing, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. Successful completion of all of the components results in a state-issued HSE diploma.
“Passing that exam and earning that diploma gives them motivation,” to work toward better lives beyond incarceration, Yelverton said.
Yelverton is impressed with the effort they put into their studies. They are only allowed “golf pencils” to use in their workbooks. They are in handcuffs when they are in the classroom unless they are taking a test. “But they do it,” he said.
The inmates only have to worry about doing assignments and studying. All materials are provided by the college and the Foundation of Wayne Community College covers the costs of the tests.
“They are the best ‘prison students’ I have ever had in my 21 years at the college,” Yelverton said. His experience includes working in the college’s educational programs at Neuse Correctional Institution and DART Center.
“It has been very exciting,” said TPCC Director Lynn Rabhan. “It is real remarkable that out of the Winders Detention Center, we have four grads.” She noted that with a larger, dedicated space, the program could accommodate more students.
Rabhan’s wish is also one of Pierce’s goals. “We have plans to continue to expand various educational and social training programs with the expansion of the detention facility,” he said. “We plan to have a classroom setting with computer stations to enhance the program.”
“My mission and hope are to transform as many lives as possible with the help of WCC and others to ensure that those attending these classes never return to an incarceration facility except maybe to help others,” Pierce said.