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From left, Bradley County Justice Center inmates Jordan Hicks and Olain Jones are pursuing their GEDs through adult education initiatives by the corrections bureau of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - A new GED program at the Bradley County Department of Corrections will benefit inmates and the community, law enforcement officials say.

Twenty inmates at the Bradley County Justice Center have been preparing to take General Educational Development tests at the end of September as part of an effort to successfully transition them back into society, said Alan Ledford, adult education coordinator for the center's corrections bureau.

"Sheriff [Jim] Ruth believes that, in order for these offenders to not become repeat offenders, they need an education," Ledford said. "Education is the key."

Although the justice center long has provided adult education services, Ledford credited Ruth's support with getting the 6-month-old GED program off the ground. He also praised the efforts of Mount Olive Women's Ministries' Literacy for Life program in the jail.

Response has been positive and growing, GED program administrators said.

"We actually have a waiting list," said Charlotte Samples, a testing coordinator for Bradley County's REACH adult high school. "I believe that more inmates will respond to the program as soon as they see others earning their GEDs."

Inmates Olain Jones and Jordan Hicks said they see their GEDs as gateways to better opportunities for their lives.

"I was always told I would not amount to anything," Hicks said. "This program has helped us a lot. We need an education."

"I want to go back to my community and prove a point," Jones said. "You can be what you want to be."

Both men said they planned to attend community colleges to study courses in information and business technology once they have been released.

Adult education officials said the impact of the GED preparation program goes well beyond individual inmates - it ripples through their families and communities.

A released inmate with a GED is 50 percent less likely to be imprisoned again, Samples said. As productive members of society, former inmates will earn and spend money, which also contributes to the local tax base, she said.

Transitioning to life outside prison walls is not easy, though, said Nancy Sherill, team leader for the Literacy for Life program, which helps inmates prepare for GED testing.

Sherill said she tells her students they need to remember that their community is counting on them and that it matters whether they succeed.

The Bradley County Justice Center soon will be certified as an official GED testing site, Ledford said. The center plans to serve as a regional testing center for surrounding corrections facilities.

He said the next steps for adult education at the justice center will be to partner with higher education institutions on possible technology and vocational training.