The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office will continue offering inmates the chance to achieve a high school equivalent certificate with funding for test fees being provided through Chattanooga State Community College.
The sheriff's office looks for ways to provide counseling and education opportunities to its convicts while they have them as "a captive audience," said Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond at a news conference Wednesday.
"Funding is always an issue with something like this, and it's my understanding that Chattanooga State has stepped alongside of us again, to take on the burden of making sure that we have the funding for the testing that occurs for this," Hammond said.
Suzanne Elston, the director of adult education at Chattanooga State, has committed grant money to cover the test fees of qualified students.
As a result of national changes to the General Education Development program, the adult education program at the jail has had to switch its tests to the HiSET, a competitor to the GED that still offers a paper test option and costs about $75 instead of $120, said Lynne Haas, a teacher with the Chattanooga State adult education program who runs the program at the jail.
His office houses about 520 to 550 inmates at the jail a day, and many of them do not have a high school diploma, Hammond said. In the long run, helping inmates achieve their high school equivalency can help reduce recidivism, he added.
"We just think it's a way to help society, because if you give a GED to a lot of these inmates, it will give them an opportunity once they get outside to accomplish things that they've never been able to do before," Hammond said.
Haas, who has worked with adult education for nine years and at the jail for about four, said it is "very rewarding" to help give people another chance to finish school, because "even basic jobs" require a high school diploma these days.
Generally, students complete the program in one or two quarters, and Haas said that in the time she has been there, 49 inmates have achieved their high school equivalency -- including 19 graduates in her first year there, which was up from one or two the year prior, and 17 in 2013.
And completing high school through the program can open doors to higher learning.
"If you get a certain level on your high school equivalency, you can qualify for all the funding that is available for any other high school graduate in the state," Haas said.
This could include Gov. Bill Haslam's new "Tennessee Promise" initiative to provide all in-state high school graduates with an opportunity to attend a community college or technical school free of tuition and fees. The program is open to anyone who can receive Pell aid, said Dave Smith, Haslam's spokesman.
According to a Federal Student Aid information sheet, students might be ineligible for aid if he were convicted of the possession or sale of illegal drugs while receiving federal aid, and will have to complete a special worksheet, which considers the date of a conviction and whether rehab has been completed, to determine eligibility.
Additionally, anyone convicted of a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense, who is subject to involuntary civil commitment after incarceration, is ineligible for federal aid.
And Haas said that the crimes her students have been convicted of run the gamut, including some murder charges.
"But I do not pay any attention to what they have done," Haas said. "When they come in they are my students. I treat them as students, just as I would any student."
Contact staff writer Alex Harris at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.