Just over a year ago, the phone service provider for the Jackson County Jail approached Sheriff Janis Mangum with an idea to provide educational tablets for inmates. The goal was to provide an extensive educational platform free of charge to the inmates and to the county. This week, Sheriff Mangum said the program has far surpassed what she envisioned when Pay Tel Communications, Inc. launched the service on Feb. 27, 2020.
Initially, the idea was to offer inmates courses that focused on decreasing violence at the jail and reducing recidivism - courses such as anger management, self-control and addiction recovery. In exchange for completing a course, the inmates would earn points that would allow them access to movies and music on the tablets.
The Pay Tel program also offered educational programs, but in January of this year, Pay Tel upgraded the tablets to the Pathway to Achieve - or the PTA - education platform, which allowed inmates who wanted to acquire a GED to complete an initial risk/needs assessment and then be guided through recommended course content.
"[This week] Pay Tel shared with us the first quarter PTA report," Mangum said. "Since January 5th, 2021, the inmates have spent 5,255 hours of learning time on the tablets and six learners have completed all 167 GED courses."
Mangum said the jail currently houses 210 inmates, both male and female, and all have the opportunity to take advantage of the educational tablet program.
One of the inmates scheduled to take her GED test this week is Courtney Henry, 30, of Atlanta. Henry is currently serving an 18-month sentence in Jackson County for fleeing and eluding. Henry said she's been in jail more than once in her life, but when she found out about the PTA program, she set a goal for herself.
"Of course, we get points for the movies, but while I was doing that, I was thinking that I needed to get my GED," Henry said. "I've been to prison multiple times and most of the time I played around, but this time I got really serious."
Henry said the coursework with the new PTA platform was quite a challenge.
"We really have to study and know the answers...it opens our minds back up...it brings us back to society and to think of things that we'll need to know for our children and grandchildren," Henry said. In fact, Henry said she knows her own children will be proud of her for working toward her GED.
Mangum said she and the jail staff are pushing Henry to take the test this week, since she is almost finished serving out her sentence in Jackson County.
"We want to try to help her get that GED here, and we're going to hope and pray that she does," Mangum said, noting that Henry has only had a few days to prepare for the exam. No matter the outcome of the test, Mangum said having the courses available to Henry and others has been a positive experience at the jail.
"Everybody in jail's not bad," Mangum said. "They made choices that put them here and if we can help them turn their lives around - especially somebody like Ms. Courtney because she has children and she's 30-years-old and she has her whole life ahead of her - if we can help her [and other inmates], then that's what I want to do."
Mangum said she's not sure if the program will have the same level of success once courtrooms in Jackson County reopen for trials; a number of inmates have remained behind bars for a longer time period during the pandemic because their cases can't go to trial. That's given them more time to work on GED requirements.
Still, she's sold on the Pay Tel programs and what they can do for the inmates.
"Obviously, with all the hours the inmates are spending on the tablets, they're taking advantage of a lot of the programs," said Mangum. "When they're ordered [by the court] to take certain classes, it's great for them to do it while they're here and get that done so they don't have to face that when they get out."
Courtney Henry said the program has been a life-changer for her.
"I've been incarcerated a lot of times, but one thing I can say about Jackson County [Jail] is it's changed my life totally," Henry said. "I don't know what it is about this place, but ... even if you get locked up, if you're ready and you want to change and you seek God first, all things will be added unto you and it will all work out."