26 inmates at Polunsky Unit in Livingston earn GEDS®

(Part 2 of a two-part series)

By GARY STALLARD, Contributing Writer, LUFKIN DAILY NEWS

26 inmates 

 These 26 inmates at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston received their GED® certificates during a ceremony held in the prison chapel.
State Rep. James White was a guest speaker.

  

LIVINGSTON-“Does the tassel go in the front or the back?”

The inmate at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston had already donned his purple graduation gown, but he wasn’t quite sure how to work the mortar board or the attached tassel.  

His teacher, Betty Lewing, showed him how to arrange the headgear while explaining he’d be having his graduation photo taken as well.

“Do I smile, or give a prison mean-mug?” he joked.   

“Smile,” Lewing ordered, and the man smiled.

A total of 26 inmates from the unit received their GED® (General Education Development) certificates in a ceremony held in the prison chapel this past Saturday. There were family members present, and the guest speakers included State Representative James White.

With a total of 58 inmates working toward passing the most recent test, the graduating members meant that Lewing’s class had managed a 44 percent passing rate – remarkable considering the environment in which these men had to learn, and the environments from which they came.

Some of those graduating came to the unit completely illiterate; one man said before his classes with Lewing, he couldn’t read or write his name.

“I’m very excited,” the man said. “I can already see doors opening for me that have always been closed. I had a decent job before, but I couldn’t go anywhere in it because of my lack of education, and I got frustrated. I can’t wait to use this.”

Another man said the doors opening for him weren’t just those of the educational variety.

“This is bringing me closer to my family,” he said. “I really messed up with all of them, and they haven’t had much to do with me since I got locked up. I don’t blame them. But since I started working on my GED®, I’ve been getting letters from them telling me how proud they are.”

Still another said age and his life experiences have caused him to value his newly earned education more than he ever has.

“When I was in school, I wasn’t a good student at all,” he said. “I made teachers throw erasers at me. I was frustrated with my own lack of ability, so I acted out to draw attention away from not being able to read. I ended up working bad jobs; I even used to shine shoes.

“Being able to read now lets me see a whole lot more of the world. I never want to stop learning now.”

The Windham School District is responsible for the Correctional Education in Texas, and Lewing has been an employee there since retiring from Lufkin ISD. Since she’s begun teaching at Polunsky, the graduating classes have grown from single digits to nearly 30 each time.

As she always does, on Saturday Lewing organized a full commencement ceremony, complete with Valedictorian and Salutatorian sashes, caps and gowns, and a program. Lewing and Ronnie Rawls sang a pair of gospel duets, and White commended the students for their perseverance.

“Every graduation ceremony is special, but considering what you men have gone through to get here makes your accomplishment even more so,” White said. “We live in a society that can be too quick to throw away people without offering second chances. You’re not disposable; you’re men who have made mistakes, and you’re proving you’re ready to overcome those mistakes.

“We want to help. We want to lift up, not lock up.”

 

Published December 22, 2013, in Lufkin Daily News. Reprinted with Permission.

To read Part 1 of this two-part serie please click here

 

Other articles that may interest you:

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'Why I Teach for Windham' - Windham School District offers some of the best teaching jobs in Texas! Listen as one of WSD's award-winning teachers, Martha Estrada, reveals the reasons why she chooses to teach literacy behind prison walls.

JOBview 2nd chance gives offenders head start - It allows people returning to the community from prisons and jails to search for jobs.

WSD partnership with San Antonio Food Bank enriches graduates, gives back to community - The San Antonio Food Bank (SAFB) recently held a commencement ceremony for students participating in the Texas Second Chance Warehouse Program. This partnership between Windham School District (WSD), Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and the SAFB allows currently incarcerated offenders to participate in a 100-hour course. They work with pallets, forklifts and customer orders, learning “all of the ins and outs of making the SAFB an effective, smooth-running, logistical operation,” said SAFB Chief Development Officer Michael Guerra.

Central Texas welders thank CTE teacher for training, influence - Locked up as teenagers and serving about 20 years each for murder charges, Candelario Davila and Jose Sanchez are unlikely success stories.  They were destined to years of solitary time in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Administrative Segregation, lacking motivation, mentors and job skills.  However, a correctional educator they describe as "father figure" and "the greatest welder ever" provided the intervention needed to transform their lives. Today they are gainfully employed as welders in the Austin area, enjoying their families, freedom and work.

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Success Story IconNEW - We can learn and be successful - "My life is proof that we can learn and be successful and stay out of trouble."

Success Story IconTo a WSD welding teacher from a former offender student -
"I got a job welding and I had to write and just thank you so much for putting me ahead of the game."

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"These opportunities [GED® classes or learning a trade] are great, but WSD is so much more than that; for me it was a change of life."

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WSD in Images

Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
Each day WSD correctional educators pass through prison gates across Texas to work with men and women incarcerated within TDCJ.
Female offenders in Gatesville, Texas, study to improve their literacy skills during a WSD academic class.
An offender at the Polunsky Unit prepares for graduation after earning his GED through the Windham School District.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.